Mobile devices of all shapes and sizes are proliferating in the corporate world, and synchronization is becoming an important issue among executives and IT managers. Data stored on a user's PC or on the company network needs to be moved to portable devices, and changes on one device need to be reflected on the other.
Portable devices include everything from notebooks to Windows CE and Palm devices to pagers and cell phones. Each has its own set of solutions, and supporting them all can be a problem, especially in an environment without set standards.
There are two important questions that must be asked when solving the issue of synchronization control: What devices do users have and what kinds of data are they working with? Depending on the situation within your company, you may be able to use the synchronization utilities bundled with the devices themselves, or you may find yourself investing in different utilities.
If all the devices are either standard portables or WinCE palmtops, the task is easy. It's harder to support a different array of devices. Correspondingly, if all users are on Microsoft Outlook 95 or 97, synchronization is greatly simplified, compared with synchronizing different personal information managers, e-mail programs or data sets. For instance, some databases, enterprise resource planning and customer-relationship management programs offer clients for palmtop devices, but usually some programming is required. Other programs that don't yet offer clients require custom programming to get them running.
Synchronization tools can be divided between two major categories: universal software that works with a range of devices, and more specialized tools that are designed to work with a particular type of device (a cell phone, for example) or with different applications such as Lotus Notes or the Web.
It all Began With the Palm
In part, synchronization is becoming a greater issue due to the surge of handheld usage, sparked by the PalmPilot. The relatively low cost of handhelds-ranging from $200 to about $600 for a version that offers wireless communications-has made them an attractive alternative to laptops for companies that want to collect and deliver information to mobile employees. The new wireless version is especially enticing, offering corporate users the ability to pull information onto PalmPilots without being physically connected to a phone.
Handheld devices such as the PalmPilot work well on their own. With the proprietary personal information manager and synchronization software provided with the device, a user can synchronize data on the handheld with information stored on a personal computer-ensuring that phone lists, calendars and other organizational files are current. But syncing these devices with CRM software or other corporate information sources will require more sophisticated synchronization utilities.
The Ubiquitous Sync
CompanionLink works with the broadest range of hardware devices. This small utility fits on a single floppy disk and includes a wizard to walk you through the synchronization process. There's a professional version, which includes a Category Manager that lets you map categories and applications separately so that you can sync different parts of your database with, for example, both Microsoft Outlook and GoldMine.
Desktop to Go is a little more limited in terms of device and applications support, but it has many features that are attractive to users of 3Com Palm organizers. For instance, Desktop to Go installs in a flash, and it uses a simple tabbed dialog box for address book, memo, to-do list and calendar items.
Designed originally for the Franklin Rex PC Companion, TrueSync is now a sort of synchronization environment that aims to work with all handheld devices and applications. To add support for a new device or application, you download the appropriate, free TrueSync Plus Accessor. TrueSync provides graphical representations of all your connected devices and software.
Beyond the Handheld
Cell phones aren't just telephones anymore. Moving into the realm of handheld functions, many phones now include PDA-like software that lets you store information about contacts. But entering all that information on a tiny telephone keypad can be tiresome.
FoneSync, from Paragon Software, provides a bidirectional link between your desktop PIM (personal information manager) and any one of dozens of cell phones from Ericsson, Mitsubishi, Nokia, Panasonic and Sony. With FoneSync, you drag and drop contacts from Symantec's ACT!, GoldMine, Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook directly into your cell phone. FoneSync also supports the vCard standard.
Lotus Notes users don't have to carry a laptop everywhere to stay connected. With Lotus EasySync for Notes, ($68 list) you can synchronize the Notes calendar, contacts, tasks, memos and e-mail with your 3Com Palm organizer or IBM WorkPad. EasySync integrates directly with Palm's HotSync 2.0 (or later) synchronization utility.
PlusFactor's WeSync is the only product that uses the Internet to create a synchronization service for groups rather than for individuals. WeSync takes HotSync a giant step further, automatically synchronizing data with "WeSync Communities" stored on its Internet-based server. Once the data is uploaded, others can access it from a desktop PC or by downloading it to their own Palm organizers. Communities are divided into three main areas: Your Work Life, Your Personal Life and Your Interests. In each of these, you can store sets of calendars and contacts.
It's one thing to keep a handheld and a laptop or desktop in sync, but when it comes to making handhelds communicate to an entire network, things become more difficult. To make handhelds a viable solution for traveling employees, they must be able to dial into a corporate server, retrieve and send information, and do so securely-using the same kind of password and other protections that are standard for laptop users. MIS managers must also be able to track who has a particular device, monitor usage of that device and install software updates when necessary.
Addressing this issue is Riverbed Technologies. This company has developed software called ScoutWare, which includes software for managing and tracking devices as well as tools to let companies develop customized applications.
Riverbed works to answer the needs of executives on the move who want a handheld link back to the main office. In addition to updating personal contact lists and appointment schedules, these executives want to be able to retrieve e-mail messages from a corporate network and drill into sales or financial databases.
Then there are other applications where the handheld device is used to computerize activities that traditionally have been handled by paper. Sonic Innovations, a hearing-aid manufacturer based in Salt Lake City, is using Riverbed's software and PalmPilot devices to help distributors customize the company's Natura hearing aid for individual customers.
Sonic has already deployed about 500 Palms using the system, which uses a special cable to connect to the hearing aid and alter its sensitivity at different frequencies, depending on the patient. The company needed to be able to figure out how to communicate with hearing-care professionals to update the software and back up their data. Using Riverbed's software, Sonic can collect statistics on which settings are used most-data that will help improve future models.
For an enterprise-wide synchronization solution, Oracle8i Lite supports Riverbed's ScoutSync technology to improve customer relationship management (CRM) data access on handheld devices. The company is working with Oracle to enable sales and service professionals to travel with their customer information in a remote Palm handheld mobile environment.
For the Oracle Field Sales/Palm application, Riverbed's ScoutSync is an integrating technology that drives access between Palm applications and customer and sales information stored in enterprise systems. Customer and account information from Oracle Field Sales/Palm can be updated directly to the server, without requiring a laptop, via a network connection or a wireless device. The open architecture of Oracle8i Lite enables Riverbed's ScoutSync platform to bridge handheld devices and CRM applications directly with enterprise sales applications on a server.
One step Further
Synchrologic has three tools to manage file distribution, data synchronization and software distribution for large, mobile workforces. This combination is unique, supplying IT managers with a tool that can work with notebooks, as well as handhelds running either the Palm Computing or Windows CE operating systems.
The data synchronization portion of Synchrologic's iMobile package is available now for notebook computers. Rollout of data synchronization for Palm and Windows CE handhelds, as well as file and distribution tools for notebooks and handhelds, will occur by the end of the year. Synchrologic also says that it plans to have iMobile eventually support smart phones, including the Epoc operating system that is dominant in Europe.
Global shipper Maersk in Madison, N.J., has used an early version of the data synchronization product for two years. About 250 sales personnel use the tool to send shipping requests from their notebook computers to corporate headquarters, where the requests are compared with records of excess space aboard freighters.
Maersk officials last year said the tool would enable sales representatives to retrieve data in only 15 to 20 minutes per week of connection time, compared with two hours per week online under the older method. That alone cut network service costs from $286,000 per year to $14,000 per year, they said.
Puma's Intellisync Anywhere for Microsoft Exchange lets users synchronize their Palm PDAs with data held on a Microsoft Exchange server and allows IT departments to better deploy personal digital assistants and other handhelds in large corporations.
One of the biggest benefits of Puma's LAN-based synchronization to those using PDAs running 3Com Corp.'s Palm OS is that they can synchronize their PIM data and e-mail from a Palm cradle anywhere on the network, rather than from just one on their PCs. They also gain remote dial-in access to their PIM applications and to e-mail stored in their Exchange mailboxes
Users' PCs need not be turned on for users to synchronize data-the information is accessed via a central server. Mobile users can connect to an Intellisync Anywhere server via a remote access server using Point-to-Point Protocol.
Although Intellisync Anywhere works only with Palm OS-based devices, support for Windows CE-based handhelds will be coming later this year, according to Puma officials. Unfortunately for Lotus Notes users, the first release of Intellisync Anywhere works only with Exchange, but a Notes version is under development for release later this year.
The Intellisync Anywhere system includes the Intellisync Anywhere server, which resides on a LAN server. Also included are the desktop application, which is installed on each user's desktop, and the mobile client, which is installed on each Palm device. Intellisync Anywhere is priced at $99 per seat for 100 users.
Databases And ERP
A number of vendors, including Sybase, SAP and others such as Puma, are providing portals into server-based databases from various handheld devices, primarily Palm and CE handheld devices. These are custom-written for each database application, as the PC-oriented screens that would normally be displayed in the office can't be displayed on the small screens.
Vendors are working hard to provide development tools to allow administrators to easily create handheld versions of their applications. For example, Synchrologic has a tool called SyncKit for the Palm that allows administrators to provide users with data from multiple company databases on Palm devices.
AvantGo, Inc. offers software that gives handheld computer users access to Web-based information, albeit not in real time. The company recently introduced AvantGo.com, a free interactive service that gives mobile users access to thousands of Web sites ranging from ticker symbol look-up, to restaurant guides to news feeds. The service optimizes HTML information for viewing on the small screen of a handheld device and downloads it to the handheld whenever the user synchronizes his data.
More intriguing for CRM users, AvantGo also offers software and hosting services that let companies use the same technology to synchronize their users' handheld devices with Web-based information from corporate intranets and extranets.
To standardize or Not
The issue for many managers is whether or not to standardize on a single handheld platform, possibly annoying users who have already bought other devices of their own and made an investment getting them to work. Managers can also try to support many different devices, understanding that each will require a custom solution. Since many early adopters of handhelds are influential users, it's a good thing that there are tools to support the second option.
The next logical step is to provide synchronization with the network server rather than setting up synchronization solutions among different PCs and mobile devices.
Lotus Development Corp.