Interview: Three minutes with Mark Eppley

The "m-life" of a mobile, 21st-century, tech-savvy person may be a new buzzphrase, but Mark Eppley has been living mobile for years. Founder and chief executive of what was initially Traveling Software, he renamed the company LapLink Inc. after its leading product, a remote-control-and-access utility. Newer is PCsync, strictly a file transfer program, also available in a version for PDAs. PCWorld.com caught Eppley on the road and online for a conversation about how he has seen portable computing change, and what he expects next.

Q: You were briefly LapLink.com--why did you drop that extension?Eppley: I think the dot-com moniker is more related to public perception than to who we are and what we do as a company. We've always been an online communications company. Obviously the Internet novelty has worn off; but from our perspective, for file transfer and synchronization applications, the major impact of the Internet has not arrived yet. As we move into a Windows XP environment, with more wireless and broadband connectivity, a whole new class of communications applications will emerge.

Q: LapLink has always been about portability. How much closer are we now to the "weightless computing" you have promoted?Eppley: Much closer! Weightless computing was all about not having to carry a notebook with you while traveling. We've added file "surf-up" capability to PCsync, which lets anyone at a browser-enabled PC--or airport kiosk--access a file on their office or home computers. The next generation of PDA devices will transcend from being a cradle-sync'd address-book device to a wirelessly connected remote-control device using the Internet to access information and services. As more devices and public access points are available--like we see in airports, Starbucks, and other public places--it will become possible to actually "leave home without it" (a portable computer, that is).

I've been carrying portable computers around since the beginning of time, since the Osborne I, which was credited with being the first portable PC, although it was actually the size of a sewing machine.

And I've had every machine since then, I think. And this medical condition is going to show up in a few years, something like bursitis of the laptop. People will walk around bent to one side, and you'll say, oh, you used to carry a portable in the eighties and nineties, didn't you?

But why carry something, if you don't really need to work offline? Then you can walk up to any machine, at any time, and accomplish what you have to do. But it won't happen overnight, this is going to be a transition.

Q: What's holding it up?

Eppley: The problem is that trust thing. Keeping your data online. But not that many years ago, people were deathly afraid of putting a credit card on the Internet. Some still are, but it's not like it was.

So that increasing trust will encourage companies to go to a centralized data-center service approach.

Q: Isn't this kind of a step backwards, to data centers?Eppley: Well, it's full circle. We've gone from the sixties and the seventies and mainframes to minicomputers, to service bureaus, and PCs in the eighties, the nineties....

Q: But this is progress because...?Eppley: It's progress because we didn't have the Internet before, and the Internet makes this all possible. Without this ubiquitous access worldwide, and the low cost of the bandwidth, you couldn't do this.

Especially with all the portable devices, your phones, your PDAs, you have to have centralized information that syncs out to all these places. I think it's going to be a major shift in computing.

Also, it's not just a matter of synchronization, it's versioning. LapLink technology transfers just the file changes, and tracks the version. It stores one version with all the changes, which you can review. So what you're doing is not only saving bandwidth, you're saving disk space.

Q: Speaking of server-based storage, you once ventured into infrastructure technology, a real switch from the very end-user LapLink and PC Sync. Are you still exploring that?Eppley: We still do a good deal of volume-license business for LapLink and PC Sync, but this is an outgrowth of our packaged-product business. We have split off a technology-licensing organization called SpeedSync Technologies that is licensing our core, patented sync software to be embedded in all mobile devices and software applications.

But the LapLink company is a packaged-product model, and SpeedSync Technologies is an independent technology-licensing company, similar to Dolby Laboratories in the music business.

Q: So you envision LapLink applications on the many client systems that will access information on servers. Do you still think server-based applications are too clunky?Eppley: The application service provider model will be slow to develop, although some product segments will take off faster than others. Microsoft's .Net initiative will be a significant catalyst, as well as Java 2 Micro Edition support on the next generation of mobile devices. I think the soonest you will see useful .Net or ASP services for consumers is this fall.

Q: Is your LapLink philosophy in line with Microsoft's .Net plans?Eppley: Yes, we expect many announcements of centralized data-center services, all related to this information store of online information sources. We're offering the label "Internet File Management." Call it what you will, but it's happening.

Q: LapLink is a veteran, and has weathered tough times before. What challenges do you see ahead?Eppley: An advantage we have as a company is that we've been through the worst. And we've seen--well, heck, we've been through three or four significant market creations. Not only the PC market, but the portable market, the handheld market.

Still, we have some new tricks up our sleeve. To me, this period of time is the most exciting, early market development. There's nothing better than that.

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