Out of Sync: The Traffic Jam for Synchronization

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The Promise of Convergence

Ten years ago, simultaneous advances in computer power and communications technology led many high tech companies — and their customers — to herald the coming Age of Convergence. We anticipated a single device that would accumulate all of our information, from personal to business. Convergence promised a single — and simple — access point to any type of data.

The Reality of Proliferation

But convergence didn’t happen. Instead, a savvy but not extraordinary business traveler might have a desktop machine at the office, a laptop in the briefcase, a handheld organizer in the coat pocket, a cell phone and perhaps pager on the belt, and a digital data-ready watch on the wrist. That’s six separate microprocessors, and we haven’t even touched the corporate servers or web backbone. Add on a portable DVD player and an MP3 player and we are neck-deep in silicon!

This divergence leads to a new problem: how to keep all of the information on each device current? This is compounded by the fact that each device is designed for a different function and therefore needs a different “view” of the data. To illustrate, let’s look at my address book. My cell phone only contains the commonly dialed telephone numbers in its built-in address book, along with a name. But my handheld device should have all of my personal contacts, complete with address and birthdays. My laptop should contain my personal contacts and my entire corporate directory, along with organizational charts. The web, of course, contains directories of every email address anywhere.

Not only do these various devices require different levels of detail and scope, but because my friends and colleagues move around so frequently, I need the information in one device to match that of another device. For example, if my coworker changes her mobile telephone number, I’d prefer to enter this amendment into only one device, but have all of the others updated automatically.

I Sync Therefore I Am

This need, along with the complexities surrounding convergence, have lead to an explosion of synchronization engines. Many did not survive the Dot Crash. Many did. Perhaps you saw massive marketing pushes from companies like FusionOne (which keeps data like the address book current for all of my devices), AvantGo (to sync data from the web or my corporate intranet to my handheld device or phone), Palm (with its HotSync technology which introduced this concept of synchronization to the mass market) and Microsoft (with Active Sync for its handheld line and its Exchange Server for everything else). Each company and each technology purports to have a different technology model, with inherent advantages and (much less openly discussed) disadvantages.

One thing is clear: the user doesn’t care. With all of these devices and this mass of data to sync, the average mobile warrior requires seamless, transparent, reliable, intelligent synchronization across any and all devices, connection methods, and data sources. I would even hazard that industry analysts do not care. We do not want to learn the intricacies of XML schema, or the legal implications of storing personal data, or the technical hassles of conflict resolution. While perhaps naive, we simply would like to close the Sync Chapter to move onto something more interesting and less frustrating. Unfortunately, as yet, no sync engine offers such a panacea. And equally discouraging, no sync engine will work with any other.

High Walls and Locked Doors

Each engine provider would like to house your data, thereby locking you into its solution for years to come. Many of these companies rely on the promise of revenue from showing you passive advertisements, adding content like concerts or TV shows to your calendar (which is akin to opt-in advertising), providing enterprise-level sync engines for a per seat fee, or (worst case) selling your demographic data to marketing firms. Their business models all rely upon the capture and retention of your data. As such, these engines have little impetus to work with each other, to mesh one engine (and the data it contains) into another engine. This means that each company individually builds a synchronization technology from scratch, on its own, without any cooperation from any other vendor.

So the HotSync technology that came with my Palm device to sync it to Outlook on my desktop will not run with my FusionOne engine to keep my telephone updated. Nor will it work with my Yahoo! sync engine (from Star Fish, now owned by Motorola, another long story) to place my contacts in my web-based address book. Or with ActiveSync for my PocketPC. Or my Nokia PC-Sync. All of these engines are mutually exclusive. They cannot operate in series or in parallel. In fact, they over-write vital portions of each other upon installation, so the only intact engine would be the last one installed.

In fact, an attempt to develop a common standard, SyncML, has yet to truly gain traction because several larger players remain so adamant to keep their customers? data that they refuse to join the organization and adopt the standard. To be fair, these vendors have other motivations to keep the door locked. The legal liability emanating from a breach of security is unfathomable. Such an incident could probably undermine an entire company. (Witness the prominence of scandals for Microsoft Internet Explorer or Palm Desktop Organizer!) And it would be much easier to manage conflict resolution if all of the underlying technology were produced in-house.

Open the Door and Let Me In

These excuses do not invalidate the possibility of a single, industry-wide Sync Engine. In fact, while this would not appeal to any single player, the company that makes this platform that can connect to all of the engines will win. The key to its success is to avoid greed: an Open Source engine with a system of certificates to allow any and all comers to write conduits to the various devices. I could sync to my Palm, my PocketPC, my Yahoo address book, all simultaneously.

Lest you think that this suggestion is unrealistic charity, such technology will quickly become the acquisition target of the most forward-looking player in the Traditional Synchronization space.

I will not dissect the technical pitfalls of this approach because, to be honest, I am bored with the discussion. Instead, I invite you to visit the Forum to discuss ways AROUND these pitfalls. It is time to put our collective heads together to solve this problem once and for all.

What Do We Get If We Cooperate?

Imagine a world where all of my data is proliferated to all of my devices and data sinks? Sound dreamy? But wait, there?s more! It is now trite to say that personal information benefits from the network effect.

A site called Zkey connected its users’ address books together (with various levels of permission to ensure privacy, of course) so that, should I change my own telephone number, all other Zkey members who have me in their address book will automatically receive that update to all of their devices. (Zkey, like many other web software firms, has changed its focus towards enterprise solutions.) The concept becomes more powerful if my address could troll the web to find all of my contacts (perhaps matching email address?) and create a hidden data-to-data link.

We would attain the pinnacle of the Internet: interconnectedness.


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About the author
Ted Ladd is a productivity fanatic, focusing on the technology and habits surrounding organization and communication. He held several roles at Palm, Inc. since 1998, from developer relations to enthusiast marketing to company spokesman. He and his wife now operate a management and technology consulting business in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Please send comments to info@hewittladd.com or, better yet, visit the Brighthand Forum listed at the bottom of each article.

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