March 23, 2006



Posted: 10.03

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Sync Engines!

Synchronizing data wirelessly could become a thing of the past before it even begins.
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By Phil Britt

As service-centric companies of all shapes and sizes struggle to differentiate themselves from their competitors, many are putting their faith in the concept of the real-time enterprise (RTE) to make them stand out from the snail’s-pace crowd. Whether RTE is a true paradigm shift or just the lastest IT buzzword remains to be seen. But one of the key components to an RTE strategy is moving information swiftly and easily out to the field. And the nugget of this tactic gets down to good old-fashioned data synchronization.

The Holy Grail of data sync is, of course, wireless sync. What better way to move intelligence to the point of service than via swift wireless connections, right? But how close is the mobile market to being able to provide cost-effective, reliable wireless synchronization? Where is this sector headed, and how should you take advantage of its movements?

Some companies offering wireless sync solutions might be hard pressed to succeed in the next couple of years as Microsoft, IBM and other heavy hitters expand what they’re doing in this market, according to Ken Dulaney, VP and research director for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group.

However, the tactical solution providers say the report of their demise is premature at best. Customers don’t want to be limited to a single platform, as would be the case with Microsoft or IBM, these firms say. Additionally, evolving security needs and network growth means that synchronization needs are becoming more complex, so there are still many unfilled needs.

The synchronization of wireless and wired applications is becoming more important as businesses continue to push information and applications out to an increasingly mobile workforce. Once based on the idea of always-on or always-connected scenarios, most field force applications now operate on the theory of occasional connections. If your mobile apps are not built to store data when they aren’t connected and forward it when the link becomes active, you’re already falling behind.

Some of the leading wireless synchronization applications can also update data between two wireless devices without the need to connect to the company’s central or branch office until later. This is useful for remote teams working out in the field. These devices are using a combination of Wi-Fi hubs, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies to keep data synchronized.

Here’s a look at some of the lateset advances from a handful of the wireless synchronization providers.

What to Look For?

The mobile decision-maker needs to look at the different offerings with his company’s own needs in mind. Some of the software packages communicate across only certain platforms, while others are more ubiquitous in scope. Additionally, the synchronization capabilities are basically split into two camps: Those that synchronize data and applications, and those that synchronize PIM data, e-mail, calendars and contacts.

“The market is consolidating, but there is still room for relatively new entries; the market is not collapsing in a uniform way,” says Joe Owen, CTO for XcelleNet.

In August, Extended Systems, based in Boise, Idaho, unveiled its new OneBridge Mobile Groupware solution. OneBridge features a unique push methodology that offers an always-on, always-connected model using the company’s IP-based technology. The technology supports multiple device platforms, including Pocket PC and Palm, and multiple wireless networks including 2.5G (GPRS, CDMA 1xRTT), WLAN and Bluetooth.

Additionally, users are always informed of data receipt and delivery and the new software supports Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus Notes. Extended Systems will also continue to provide additional mobile solutions that allow companies to extend existing enterprise applications to mobile devices with the company’s OneBridge Mobile Data Suite and OneBridge Mobile Business Solutions.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Good Technology launched its updated synchronized system, GoodLink, which wirelessly connects users with Microsoft Exchange and other critical enterprise information.
The updated software extends support of the system from the previously supported RIM 950, 957 and Good G100 handhelds to other industry-standard devices on leading wireless networks and includes integrated telephony, two-way paging, better security and reliability and centralized fleet management. It also allows users to view e-mail attachments in Microsoft Office, WordPerfect, HTML, PDF and RTF file formats. GoodLink 2.0 debuted on the Cingular Wireless Mobitex network and was to be available on other voice/data networks beginning this fall.

Synchrologic of Alpharetta, Ga., unveiled its Push Mobile technology that uses the IP network address on the front-end device and automatically delivers any pertinent information from the server. The technology incorporates IP-addressable devices, as well as SMS-addressable devices—using both of these technologies in concert, if needed—promising the highest reliability of information delivery.

In September, Pumatech unveiled software that allows any browser-enabled device—a PC, Mac, mobile phone or PDA—to access applications and files that reside on their desktop computer, including e-mail, contacts, tasks, calendars and documents. A new phone edition of the company’s popular Intellisync software enables the user to plug a cord from a PC into a mobile phone and sync all contact information from the PC’s PIM to the phone.

Not Everyone Agrees

At one time San Diego, Calif.-based FusionOne had a philosophy of synchronizing everything with everything, wireless or wired. But such an approach was unwieldy for the company to offer and for field force workers to use, says Bob Borchers, VP of marketing. So the company focused on its Mighty Phone application, which provides PDA-type applications and synchronization on a wireless phone. The philosophy is that the mobile professional will always have a phone with him, so he shouldn’t need to carry a PDA, too.

“The mobile phone, including Palms with telecom capabilities, is the biggest market out there,” Borchers says, adding that the need for synchronization has extended from the mobile professional to the busy consumer, like parents coordinating children’s schedules.

Though wireless synchronization of PIMs has been around for some time, driving much of the current push is the need for e-mail capabilities out in the field, according to Clyde Foster, senior VP for Pumatech. His company’s synchronization software is imbedded in a host of handheld devices, including those from Sony, RIM and others. The company owns 52 patents and has another 20 in the works, according to Foster. “Synchronization is becoming more complex because there are an increasing number of networks and applications,” Foster says.

That’s why CRM suites from leaders such as Siebel, Oracle and PeopleSoft include wireless synchronization with their applications now or will by early next year, notes Foster. “This way the users of these applications don’t have to re-enter data.”

Companies aren’t interested in building the synchronization piece themselves, so they work with Pumatech, which specializes in this area, according to Foster. Therefore, he doesn’t see a threat to Pumatech from Microsoft or IBM.

Not Viable For Long

While no one questions the mobile worker’s need to synchronize PIMs, calendars and e-mail, some don’t expect companies providing only this type of service to remain viable for long if they don’t work closely with other application providers.

XcelleNet’s Owen expects synchronization capabilities to eventually be embedded in field applications, not just the CRM programs mentioned earlier. Providers of these services, however, point to the agnostic nature of their products—the ability to communicate across devices and platforms—as their basis for future business.

The need for wireless synchronization of applications and databases continues to increase as work moves from the central office out to the field, according to Britt Johnson, CTO of PeerDirect, which provides the synchronization capabilities for Honeywell.

Mechanics in Honeywell’s aerospace division, which services private corporate jets, use service applications at the customer site while making repairs. Using Tablet PCs, the mechanics synchronize repair information with the central office, slashing repair time from days to hours, according to Johnson. This is important for Honeywell’s customers because most have only one corporate aircraft; there’s no substitute when the jet is under repair.
“The field force is aging; there isn’t enough time to train new workers on all of the applications,” Johnson says, pointing out that wireless synchronization enables inexperienced and experienced technicians to exchange information, including diagnoses and solutions of aircraft problems. The technicians no longer need to bring the aircraft into the hangar, but can do the work right on the tarmac. “This gives them the tools they need,” Johnson says. “The applications are always available.”

The remote locations of some private and municipal airfields means that wireless connections aren’t always available, but the application data can be stored on the Tablet PCs themselves and synchronized when connections are established. Any information recorded on the Tablet PC goes across the network (when connected), not only to company headquarters but also to company technicians at other airports. So the technician handling an aircraft in Munich knows what repairs the tech in Des Moines, Iowa, made earlier in the day.

A few years ago this type of synchronization was impossible, Johnson says, pointing to slower wireless speeds and the lack of storage space on wireless devices. Now, however, some laptops and portable PCs include 10 gigabytes or more storage standard. Handheld devices also have more storage than just a couple of years ago.

Yet bandwidth management can still be an issue. So the synchronization software recognizes changes in applications and databases, then synchronizes only those alterations, or deltas. This minimizes synchronization time and makes the best use of available bandwidth, Johnson says.

Security Concerns

While synchronizing applications and integrating customers is important, so is protecting data on the remote devices, points out Claire Graves, director of marketing for Synchrologic. The wireless devices contain an increasing amount of sensitive customer and corporate information, so companies need to have the ability to erase that information (and applications), Graves explains, whether they’re connected or not.

Even with these advances, however, some systems don’t always do everything that’s promised, Dulaney cautions. So he expects further evolution in the field, with some companies thriving, some struggling and some new firms entering the market. •

Phil Britt is a freelance writer who covers technology.
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