Where Does Synchronization Belong?
By Eric Lin, Thu Oct 21 00:30:00 GMT 2004

Although synchronization between mobile devices and PCs is far from perfect, companies need to devote their efforts to technologies that can save all users, not just those with computers.


Thanks to the growing popularity of smartphones, advanced feature phones and desktop applications designed to work with them, synchronization is at the forefront of many power users' concerns. Currently these users and synchronization efforts to support them are focused on sharing specific data between a PC and a handset: backing up applications and multimedia, posting information to desktop interfaces, as well as transferring contacts and appointments or music to a phone from a PC. Even if synchronization in this current form is perfected, it does not help those users who don't rely on their computers or don't have a computer at all.

Now that users are downloading multimedia and storing more personal information on their handsets, even those who do not rely on PCs need synchronization -- not to keep their data up to date on a variety of devices, but at least to back up critical data. MegaSIM is a new card from M-Systems that combines the typical SIM functions and form factor with additional storage, up to 256 MB. This would allow users to back up their data without a PC. It would also allow users to move all of their data from one handset to another (as long as they both supported the MegaSIM), ensuring that valuable contact data, messages, and multimedia stay with the user.

The value of allowing users to back up their data without a PC is clear. However cards like the MegaSIM may not be the solution operators are looking for. The simplicity of storing information in an obvious and ubiquitous place, on the SIM card, is weighted by the complexity and cost of supporting such a system. Carriers would have to be sure handsets supported the new SIM technology, as well as upgrade users to what is most likely a more expensive SIM card. It is possible for operators to pass these costs on to subscribers, since the benefits of such technology could easily be understood by them. However the one-time cost of SIM capable of backing up data is quite small compared to what carriers could charge for over-the-air backup services.

Verizon has just begun offering its subscribers the ability to backup their contacts over the air for $1.99 per month, but users still have no way to save ringtones, photos or text messages to another handset should they lose or upgrade their current model. Other companies are beginning to see the value of mobile sync services as well. Microsoft Smartphones can wirelessly synchronize contacts, schedules and mail with Exchange servers; PalmOne recently announced it would add the same functionality to new Treo devices. Nokia announced that it would add over the air posting to a new version of the Lifeblog application instead of forcing users to sync the data to a PC. But each of these applications only solves a part of the problem, not the whole thing.

Orange offers a complete wireless backup service for users of their Microsoft Smartphones. However there are few, if any, options for feature phones and other smart devices from any carrier. The one notable exception are those that offer Danger's Hiptop, which is constantly -- and completely -- backed up to a server without any effort on the user's part. As users continue to place more personal and critical data on their handsets, the ability to back it up will be more important as well. If no suitable wireless technology can be developed, technologies like the MegaSIM present a viable solution, even if it can't help users who lose their phone -- a significant advantage of remote backup.