Wireless and Mobile Application Synchronization


Computing for Wireless and Mobile devices relies on accuracy, detail, and maintaining synchronicity with multiple versions of the same data across multiple devices. As an example, mobile users coordinate their day’s work with schedulers, Personal Information Managers (PIMs), and contact managers-constantly referring to a complex range of data to facilitate the day’s work. As the reach of wireless and mobile systems continues beyond personal productivity tools into the realms of corporate applications, and conversely, as customer servicing corporate applications extend their reach into the Wireless and Mobile space, users increasingly trust and depend on the integrity and timeliness of data that spans the host and the various mobile platforms-a mobile phone, a handheld computer, or a laptop. Reference data on the multiple devices must be current, transferable, and reliable. A range of applications process, manipulate, and update data that the user relies on and can reference as part of their daily activities. Occasionally, users connect to the network to synchronize any local changes across the various networked devices, both submitting data and receiving updates made to the networked data while the device was disconnected. Occasionally, they may need to resolve conflicts among the updates made to the networked data.

Data synchronization is the term used to refer to this reconciliation operation where updates are exchanged and conflicts are resolved. These data synchronization activities are performed over a session management layer. Synchronizing data between these platforms is a critical element in the solutions mix to managing mobile commerce applications effectively. Inadequate attention to this dimension could cause loss of data integrity, inconsistencies in application data, and as a result impact consumer confidence, putting the brakes on acceptance of mobile commerce as a viable and necessary adjunct to 21st century business life. The absence of a single synchronization standard was identified as a major hurdle for end-users, device manufacturers, application developers, and service providers over a year ago in early groundwork leading up to the formation of the Mobile Management Forum.

Synchronization across different platform and applications sounds at first pass to be a single action to harmonize data across these platforms, but in reality it involves multiple levels of carefully defined activities to rationalize the contents of two or more sources of data (across one, two, or more platforms). This last dimension, spanning a broad range of data types across a range of operating systems, database systems, and devices, offer a significant challenge in the quest for interoperability. There is no accepted implemented standard today for addressing this need-there is a proliferation of different, proprietary data synchronization mechanisms for mobile devices. Some of these are aimed at PIM functionality and others target the deeper, more complex issue of synchronizing corporate databases. Certain solutions are only available for select transports or are implemented on a specific subset of devices.

Synchronization Taxonomy

What follows is a range of vendor solutions available in the market today to illustrate the disparate approaches and spread of solutions. Their general concept of data synchronization provides for a readily available networked, web-based repository of key information that can be accessed simply from any web or browser-based connection. Data such as calendars, address books, email, to-do lists, and so on, can be accessed "on the move" and, more importantly, kept up-to-date and synchronized with integrity by these technologies. The leading vendors in this space are aggressively moving toward a "server-centric" web-based model for synchronization of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and other mobile devices. Various vendors offer the ability to connect from anywhere, over personal area networks, local area networks, and wide area networks.

A range of functions are supported, with very few suppliers spanning the full range of sample functions listed below across fixed, mobile, and wireless device families:

In addition to synchronization, any solution should also:

Palm Computing

Palm Computing's data synchronization application, which is shipped with every Palm device, enables the user to synchronize data between those devices and desktop applications such as Symantec Corporation's Act, Novell Inc.'s GroupWise, Lotus Development Corporation's Organizer, and Microsoft's Schedule+. Palm also supplies the Conduit SDK for developing plug-ins to their facility.

WinCE ActiveSync

Microsoft's ActiveSync ships with every palm and handheld PC. Like Palm’s HotSync, ActiveSync works with a variety of PIMs (personal information managers). Visual C++ developers can create their own ActiveSync services, similar to Palm's conduits, using the Windows CE Toolkit.

Win2000 Synchronize Facility

Windows 95 and NT 4.0 featured the Briefcase, the first attempt at file synchronization in Windows. Win2000 adds a function that allows mobile users to keep data on both a PC and a network up-to-date. You can specify files or folders that are to be automatically kept concurrent, so if you lose your connection you can still work on a local copy of a file. Synchronization can be set to take place at pre-scheduled times, before logoff or shutdown, or after a certain amount of idle time.


Starfish is a supplier of data synchronization technologies for wireless and fixed connection communication between mobile, server, and desktop devices, founded in 1994. The Starfish founding vision is: "Global synchronization and integration of wireless and fixed connection devices". Starfish has produced a variety of products such as the StarTAC Mobile Organizer and facilities for Yahoo!. Starfish supports major platforms, including PalmPilot, WinCE, and Java.


Synchrologic was founded in 1995 to provide component software that addresses two key technology problems for laptop users and remote sites that goes beyond functions for synchronizing email and PIM data:

Synchrologic has the goal of being committed to providing best-of-breed technologies in specialized domains, and to produce software toolkits which solve the difficult problems associated with deferred access data synchronization and data distribution for wireless and mobile workers between handhelds, servers, and laptops.

Synchrologic sells its software to packaged applications' vendors (OEM) and to corporate developers and works closely with the major database vendors to help propagate standards and maintain integration and support for the relevant technologies The company claims that all its software strictly adheres to industry standard protocols, methodologies, and programming interfaces. They also have committed support of open-standards, and to ensure that its products integrate with them as well as the range of development tools typically employed by enterprise system developers.

Visto Corporation

Visto Corporation was founded in August 1996 with the vision of providing mobile access to personal information via the web. In October 1997, the company introduced the Visto service to mobile professionals as a "virtual briefcase" to store email, files, address book, and bookmarks. Visto offerings allow mobile workers to access vital information with a web browser when they are away from home base. They aim to provide a quick way to cull files, email, web bookmarks, and contact information from a range of PIMs and store them on Visto's secure web server for later retrieval. Visto's client software provides an organized method of synchronizing PC data with data on Visto's web site.

Visto's foundation incorporates the ability to add new applications, and levels of encryption and secure authentication, as well as the ability to access data from behind firewalls.

Scheduled synchronization and replication of data across applications is also part of the Visto architecture. Visto uses Puma PIM synchronization technology.


ITA is a provider of developer components, primarily targeted at Visual Basic developers, used for database synchronization and replication for mobile applications when they cannot be connected to a network database. They aim to provide tools that help build applications to allow people to work online as well as offline. ITA does this with Active Server and ActiveX components (based upon COM/DCOM) which provide robust functionality for database synchronization and application-to-application data exchange. The tools are based on proprietary processes and techniques.

Aether Software

Aether Software is a division of Aether Systems (formerly Riverbed Technologies) offering a software solution to extend enterprise computing access to handheld devices. Their aim is to provide mobile computing software that connects business professionals with legacy, web-based, and other enterprise software and applications.

Extended Systems

Founded in 1984, Extended Systems products include functions for data synchronization as well as network print servers, wireless infrared connections, and other network facilities.

A Standards Initiative Emerges -SyncML

SyncML (Synchronization Mark-up Language) is a new industry initiative formed at the end of February 2000 by IBM, Lotus, Motorola, Nokia, Palm, Psion, and Starfish for developing and promoting an open universal standard for synchronizing data across different computer platforms, networks, and devices. SyncML is an XML-based data synchronization protocol supporting data synchronization (email, calendar, contact management information as well as enterprise data stored in databases, and web-based documents) while aiming to be open enough to accommodate new forms of content available in future. The SyncML Initiative is open for industry partners to join and assist in developing the specification. By mid-March more than 80 companies had signed up as members.

If engineered well, the SyncML specification should allow for interoperable wireless and wired data synchronization products across internal corporate servers, Internet web servers, personal computers and laptops, handhelds, palmtops, and other mobile devices, across platforms. The founding members of the SyncML Initiative are reported to have identified the following goals in their pursuit of a successful development and adoption of an industry-wide data synchronization standard:

The SyncML Initiative will build on existing standards such as XML, MIME, vCard, and iCalendar. The SyncML Initiative hopes to deliver the SyncML protocol specification later this year. This protocol aims to meet the resource constraints of mobile devices and wireless networks and will provide the extensibility to support a range of data types. The goal of the SyncML Initiative is to deliver the protocol in the future for formal adoption and maintenance by an established standards body. To enable adoption of the SyncML, the SyncML Initiative will deliver an architectural specification, two protocol specifications (SyncML representation protocol and SyncML synchronization protocol), bindings to common transport protocols, interfaces for a common programming language, and an openly available prototype implementation of the protocol.

Conclusion and Role of The Open Group

The Open Group should support the activities of the SyncML group.

The Mobile Management Forum should work closely with SyncML (and similar organizations) and the existing players in the market to ensure that the solutions fully meet the needs of users and integrate and interoperate effectively with the proposed Common Session Management Layer (CSML) work.

Furthermore, The Open Group should encourage close interaction between the Mobile Management Forum and SyncML, so that the corporate/government user community will fully appreciate and support initiatives to create an open interoperable data synchronization protocol.