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Miscommunications and misconceptions of mobile synchronization

As we get deeper into mobile infrastructures, synchronization suddenly takes on a whole new personality.




Highlights:
  • As we get deeper into mobile infrastructures, and eventually move toward an 'always on, always available' wireless environment, synchronization suddenly takes on a whole new personality.
  • Emerging trends in synchronization include: An effort to make synchronization more intuitive and in tune with a user's personal work styles and habits; to develop server technology that can handle a variety of data types; and to eventually expand and enhance the technology to flow along cellular networks.
  • Starfish plans include implementing its SyncML stack for Palm- and Symbian-based mobile devices, and making its TrueSync technology a lot more compact to fit into smaller mobile devices

  • The company is also working on device management applications that will appeal to network administrators and those within a company who are saddled with the responsibility of tracking usage of an army of mobile systems.

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By Tim Scannell

At the September 2002 Networld & Interop conference and exhibition, Shoreline moderated a lively discussion on emerging wireless architectures on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I began the talk by pointing out the irony of the topic of our discussion, which was sophisticated and fast wireless data communications infrastructures, and the ease at which a brutal and barbaric series of acts apparently brought these systems to their knees. I also pointed to the fact that one of the only systems that continued to work nearly flawlessly, even as cell phone systems buckled under the flood of messages, was the Research in Motion Blackberry units and supporting wireless systems (which were also supported by cellular networks). In fact, these systems continued to work until the plug was pulled out of concerns that these signals would trigger other terrorist acts.

Our point in bringing this up was not to say that Blackberry is the best messaging alternative out there right now (although we'll have to admit it is still a reliable and virtually flawless system, and continues to be the model for others to follow as far as messaging is concerned), but that sometimes the best solutions are the simplest and most straightforward.

In messaging, for example, the primary objective is getting a message from here to there as quickly and reliably and securely as possible. While there may be a great deal of noise right now about the ability to handle file attachments and multimedia files, the plain and simple truth is that most users just want to be sure they get an important message, and that their missives have been received. Simple.

This concept can also be extended to the topic of mobile synchronization. Quite simply, it means getting the latest and freshest information to your mobile device, and making sure any updates input to your device are reliably sent back to the host system. The problem is that as we get deeper into mobile infrastructures, and eventually move toward an 'always on, always available' wireless environment, synchronization suddenly takes on a whole new personality.

Suddenly, the technology is not just responsible for swapping updates back and forth, but also gets involved with such things as multi-level data base access, collaborative workspaces, security and virus detection, and even active messaging (which allow users to trigger programs and events through their replies to messages). Suddenly, it's not so simple! Or is it?

Our friends at Starfish Software, Inc. agree there is a lot of miscommunication and misconceptions surrounding the area of mobile synchronization. Most people understand the basic concept of getting the latest info from here to there, and the relative simplicity and speed of just updating only that data which has been altered or changed on either the client or host device. But, while this definition still applies and really represents the bulk of what is happening out there, synchronization technology has evolved quite a bit since Starfish and others banded together in 1994 to establish the rules of the road.

For those of you who do not know (shame on you!), Starfish took a leading role in developing today's core synchronization standards by working with a number of leading companies to establish a standards group, called the SyncML Initiative. Companies in this group included all the usual big-whig suspects, such as Nokia, Ericsson, IBM, Lotus Development, Matsushita, and Motorola, Inc. (which later acquired Starfish). The goal was to develop a standard protocol and data definition that would eventually reduce the complexity of developing, deploying and managing universal data synchronization services across multiple networks and devices. Long story short, specifications were eventually released, the SyncML membership swelled, and synchronization standards blessed the mobile landscape.

Sounds perfect, doesn't it? Unfortunately (or fortunately), synchronization became the key technology in all mobile and now wireless networks. In fact, all the companies taking part in last week's discussion on emerging networks agreed that if synchronization were not there then it doesn't really matter how fast your information is flowing, it just won't be up to date.

As a result, we now have multiple levels of synchronization, ranging from good old basic personal information management (PIM) stuff, to advanced access and manipulation to critical data base material. Add to that the eccentricities of customer relationship management (CRM) systems and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, and synchronization takes on a whole new and apparently not-so-simple personality. As a spokeswoman for Starfish says, "Most people think they want just email synchronization, until you ask them exactly what they hope to do!" In short, it's not your father's synchronization any more. What are some of the emerging trends we see in terms of synchronization technology? Glad you asked! One is an effort to make synchronization more intuitive and in tune with a user's personal work styles and habits. This means that synchronization technology can adapt to how a user conducts his or her business, and can accommodate both wired and over-air technologies. Another is to develop server technology that can handle a variety of data types, from plain old text to complicated multimedia and data base files. Also, you want to be sure that the synchronization technology you commit to can eventually be expanded and enhanced to flow along cellular networks. The wireless carriers will play an important role in the future of the 'always connected' enterprise – although more as an intuitive pipeline for data and applications than as a real solutions developer or provider.

Starfish seems to have most of these bases covered, and has developed a roadmap that may eventually expand the company from being just a technology provider to an honest-to-goodness resource for products. Right now, its TrueSync and SyncML technology is offered through a variety of vendors under various co-branding agreements. IBM Corp., for example, implements TrueSync and the Starfish technologies as part of its WebSphere initiative. Similar agreements have been worked out with PocketPC developers (where the SyncML stack is directly implemented), device manufacturers such as Nokia and Samsung, and the company has just cut a deal with PeopleSoft.

Just what is in the future for Starfish? The company is now working to implement its SyncML stack for Palm and Symbian based mobile devices (right now, they are just compatible with the technology); developers there are also working to make the TrueSync technology a lot more compact to fit into smaller mobile devices; and is working on device management applications that will appeal to network administrators and those within a company who are saddled with the responsibility of tracking usage of an army of mobile systems. In fact, our sources say a device management solution might be available as soon as this October.

Such developments may eventually create some degree of competition for companies like XcelleNet, Inc., which is one of the leaders in this space with its Afaria product suite. This, obviously, is an area of great interest to wireless operators, who are looking to charge for such services that are channeled through cellular networks.

What should you expect from Starfish in terms of new products and developments? Well, we really shouldn't give away the store, but look for an upgrade to its TrueSync server product sometime soon. Also, keep an eye out for more aggressive growth into specific channel markets, such as insurance and the rapidly growing public service and public safety markets.

About the author: Tim Scannell is the founder and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. He is also the Editorial Director and a member of the management team of Modezilla.com (www.modezilla.com), a mobile and wireless venture focusing on worldwide trends and developments in wireless and highly mobile systems. Scannell has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor in the computer industry, working on such publications as Computerworld, PC Products, Mini-Micro Systems, Systems Integration and most recently Computer Reseller News. You can reach him at:tjscan@shorelineresearch.com


This was last published in September 2002

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