Device synchronisation gets simpler

Called SyncML, the technology is a common language for synchronising devices over any network. SyncML uses the Web page design language XML (Extensible Markup Language), and can even connect mobile devices to networked applications. Backed by several hundred wireless companies, the SyncML initiative is being driven by a number of major players. Supporters include IBM and Lotus, handset makers Motorola and Nokia, handheld makers Palm and Psion, and synchronisation platform provider Starfish Software.

Only a little more than a year in the making, SyncML is fast moving beyond a work in progress and becoming real. Last week at the first SyncFest, Starfish Software announced that its TrueSync Synchronisation Server has become the first server to pass the SyncML interoperability test. Nokia and Ericsson handsets are also deemed SyncML-compliant. You'll be hearing that claim in their marketing.

Beyond the drawing board

To date, getting your personal digital assistant address book and calendar to smoothly match that of your mobile phone, notebook, and desktop has been nearly impossible.

Synchronisation is a problem for consumers, carriers, and businesses because many proprietary systems don't talk to each other, says Gregg Armstrong, chief operating officer (COO) at Starfish Software. "That's one of the reasons we initiated the SyncML consortium," Armstrong says.

The goal of SyncML is to create an open standard for universal data synchronisation. Vendors could build various software and services on top of the spec, and they'll be able to communicate.

SyncML delivers a base level of data exchange, Armstrong says. "Companies like Starfish with TrueSync then add the user interface, conflict resolution, filtering, and automated synchronisation features."

Today, TrueSync software ships with Motorola phones and pagers from Sprint PCS, SkyTel, and PageNet. But it is not just on mobile devices; the desktop software is available as a free download from Excite and Yahoo, Armstrong says. Through TrueSync, "Excite Planner supports cell phones and Palms, and connects to Outlook."

Although Starfish is a Motorola subsidiary, Armstrong says TrueSync won't be limited to Motorola devices. "We plan to ship TrueSync with other phones as well," she says.

Through their SyncML support, TrueSync also works with Nokia and Ericsson phones, Palm OS-based personal digital assistants, and Windows CE devices like Pocket PCs, Armstrong says. It will replace the custom connections often necessary for devices and networks, she notes. "SyncML compliance will enable many more devices to communicate."

Besides device and desktop software, Starfish offers TrueSync servers to carriers that could then comply with SyncML over the air, Armstrong says. Supporting carriers include Eircell of Ireland and a Spanish ISP.

As easy as e-mail

SyncML's widespread, early support promises smoother synchronisation as mobile devices proliferate.

"What POP3 did for e-mail, SyncML does for synchronisation," Armstrong says. The POP3 protocol is used by most e-mail applications to retrieve mail. It's what lets you check your Hotmail or Yahoo mail inside Outlook and vice versa.

"POP3 created a common way for different e-mail applications to speak to each other, but it wasn't an application itself," Armstrong says. "SyncML works the same way with synchronisation and PIM software."

Although most SyncML-compliant software deals with desktop-to-device synchronisation, the specification also includes device-to-network synchronisation, including wireless networks. Compliance will enable carriers to offer easier access to Web and wireless information, Armstrong says.

Ideally, consumers won't even know SyncML is there. But software like TrueSync and the devices it supports will be labelled SyncML-compliant, Armstrong says. That way, you'll know it works with other SyncML devices or software.

SyncML 1.0 was published just a few months ago, and already more than 600 companies have signed up to support it, Armstrong says.

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