Device synchronization gets simpler

An impressive list of major vendors is lining up behind a new synchronization specification that could make it much easier to share contacts, calendars and lists across all your devices.

Called SyncML, the technology is a common language for synchronizing 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 Corp. and Lotus Development Corp., handset makers Motorola Inc. and Nokia Corp., handheld makers Palm Inc. and Psion PLC, and synchronization platform provider Starfish Software Inc.

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 Synchronization Server has become the first server to pass the SyncML interoperability test. Nokia and L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. handsets are also deemed SyncML-compliant. You’ll be hearing that claim in their marketing.

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.

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

The goal of SyncML is to create an open standard for universal data synchronization. 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 said. “Companies like Starfish with TrueSync then add the user interface, conflict resolution, filtering, and automated synchronization 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 said. Through TrueSync, “Excite Planner supports cell phones and Palms, and connects to Outlook.”

Although Starfish is a Motorola subsidiary, Armstrong said TrueSync won’t be limited to Motorola devices. “We plan to ship TrueSync with other phones as well,” she said.

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 said. 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 said. Supporting carriers include Eircell of Ireland and a Spanish ISP.

SyncML’s widespread, early support promises smoother synchronization as mobile devices proliferate.

“What POP3 did for e-mail, SyncML does for synchronization,” Armstrong said. 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 said. “SyncML works the same way with synchronization and PIM software.”

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

Ideally, consumers won’t even know SyncML is there. But software like TrueSync and the devices it supports will be labeled SyncML-compliant, Armstrong said. 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 said.