Alliance aims to stop that syncing feeling

One of the biggest problems with personal digital assistants (PDAs), smart phones and online services is that it can be difficult...

One of the biggest problems with personal digital assistants (PDAs), smart phones and online services is that it can be difficult to synchronise data between these devices and applications, writes Danny Bradbury.

This can be annoying in a corporate environment, where different executives may have different personal organisers, for example. The SyncML Consortium tried to eliminate the problem last week, launching version 1.0 of the SyncML protocol.

The consortium, founded in February this year, is sponsored by Ericsson, IBM, Lotus, Panasonic, Motorola, Nokia and Palm. Psion is also on board.

The consortium has been working towards an XML-based language for synchronising applications and devices across networks, independent of transmission protocol.

Theoretically, this will make it possible to synchronise over Bluetooth networks, or cellular data links.

Lars Novak, development manager at Ericsson, explained that the launch last Thursday was an attempt to meet the deadline the organisation had set itself. In fact, the consortium's white paper originally said that it would launch in mid-2000.

But there are gaps in the organisation's message. For instance, at the launch Novak could not say how many companies would offer commercially available products supporting the standard.

To support SyncML, suppliers need to participate in a compatibility "syncathon", of which there had been none at the time of writing. Secondly, a gold candidate version of the SyncML software development kit was made available at the launch, but the final version will not be available until 15 January. "The only difference between the gold candidate and the gold version is bugs," said Novak. Well, exactly.

These appear to be just the symptoms of a consortium rushing to meet its own deadlines and delivering little apart from specifications and vapourware. More significant is the absence of Microsoft from the consortium.

The company, which has recently been regaining ground in the PDA market with its PocketPC reincarnation of Windows CE, is "very interested" according to Novak, but has yet to sign on the dotted line. No wonder, given Micro-soft's track record of proprietary market dominance, combined with the presence of Palm and all of the Symbian PDA operating system players in the consortium. Novak protests that the organisation doesn't need Microsoft anyway, because third-party synchronisation software suppliers, such as Starfish, can support Micro-soft products adequately.

Regardless of the premature presentation, SyncML stands a good chance of winning the industry over.

With significant players like Sun Microsystems also supporting the standard and with Palm's backing, it should solve a problem that has been irritating PDA users for some time.

SyncML technology

There are two parts to the SyncML technology - the client and the server. The client application uses a synchronisation agent to write data in the SyncML protocol to one of a number of transport protocols, such as http; the Wireless Session Protocol, part of the Wap protocol suite; or Obex, which serves the IrDA (Infrared Data Association) wireless communication standard. This goes through the physical transport layer to the server and is fed through to the back-end application via a server agent and a server engine.

The technology contains both a representation and a synchronisation protocol. It will support common data formats including the vCard contact information standards and iCalendar which handles scheduling information.

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