SAN FRANCISCO (01/26/2000) - Where does your digital information reside? On your desktop? Laptop? Palmtop? Smartphone? Pager? You've probably got it scattered around all your devices, redundantly and inconsistently.
Which can lead to problems. Like, say, that appointment with the company in Ohio, which your PDA is telling you is on Tuesday. Or is it Wednesday, as indicated by your Outlook calendar? You could call, but the number's back home on your PC. You're at the Cleveland airport, scratching your head and trying to remember the name of the place.
Obviously, life would be a lot easier if you could get all your data to jibe.
And you can, with a synchronization program that compares files on your handheld devices and your computers, two at a time, and updates the records on both of them.
That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that synchronization is just as complex as it sounds. It means merging information between different systems that are using different applications and that have different database structures. Whew. It was hard enough meshing data between two devices directly connected to one another. But now that PDAs are headed for the scrap heap - to be replaced by CIDs (aka connected information devices), which make it easier than ever to leave your notebook computer at home - synchronization can mean attuning several wireless devices at a time, a nightmarish task involving endless dialog boxes with arcane settings and modem-initialization codes. It's enough to make you dig your Daytimer out from the bottom of your desk drawer.
Three companies are competing to solve the synchronization hassle: Puma Technology, Starfish and FusionOne. Each is taking a different approach, but the goal is the same: Give people access to all their digital information from any device - cell phone, PDA, desktop machine, notebook computer - without having to directly connect the data together. Change an appointment anywhere, update it everywhere.
Beyond that core service, the three plan to offer a variety of head-spinning features that will alter the way you think about your mobile phone or handheld.
Imagine adding a new contact to your Web-based address book and seeing it appear on your phone seconds later. Or booking a flight reservation on Expedia and getting the itinerary sent automatically to your Palm computer and your secretary's scheduling program. Or changing your address in Outlook and the change is reflected in your friends' contact managers.
Essentially, the aim of synchronization is to transform notebooks, handhelds and smartphones from bottled-up data gadgets to electronic straws that take regular sips from a central database maintained on the Internet. The change is coming in waves.
"The first wave, which Puma pioneered, was device-to-device synchronization, trying to support as many different PC applications as possible," says Ross Rubin, VP of research and development at Jupiter Communications. The second wave is Starfish's multipoint sync. FusionOne's multidevice syncing, the third, is done asynchronously: Each device gets the latest version when it's turned on.
News on the Fly
Puma Technology, based in San Jose, Calif., has been in the mobile-synchronization business since October 1993, longer than Starfish or FusionOne, and has developed in-house data-synchronization services for 350 corporations. Silicon Graphics recently hired Puma to give its sales staff access to corporate information via handheld devices. Puma has distributed over 20 million copies of its flagship product, Intellisync, which synchronizes data between PCs and a variety of devices. This year, it plans to launch a synchronization and notification site called Intellisync.com. The basic service will be free and will use Intellisync technology on a Puma-maintained server.
To broaden its reach beyond synchronization, Puma has been buying companies to add a kind of personalized news service to its site, sending snippets of breaking information to customers. In October, Puma acquired ProxiNet, which has a technology that renders HTML data on the fly to mobile devices. Puma also bought NetMind, a Web-based notification service with 6 million users and 45,000 Web site partners.
Rowe says he wants to create "a ubiquitous mobile Internet service" that can find "urgent information you care about and inform you immediately so you can act on it." He gives an example: "Boeing is a customer of NetMind. If you're the guy in charge of procurement for sheet metal for the skins of the planes, and a half-cent drop per square foot might mean millions of dollars, you may want to be notified [by pager or cell phone] in the middle of the night if the London exchange in sheet-metal prices drops a half cent. NetMind sends actionable information to Puma to let you place that order."
Rowe thinks Puma's new Web-based service, and the company's years of experience, will keep it a step ahead of startup FusionOne; as for rival Starfish, part of Motorola, Rowe is dismissive. He claims Starfish is limited mostly to supporting Motorola hardware, while Puma supports products from Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, NTT and Sprint. "We're the champion of the IT department and champion of the end-user, rather than a Motorola proprietary shop, which is what they are," he says.
No way, says Philippe Kahn, Starfish's CEO. He stresses that his company is an "independent subsidiary of Motorola" with "complete independence" to license the technology to other hardware manufacturers.
So how many competitive hardware manufacturers will take Kahn up on his offer to incorporate Starfish's TrueSync into their phones? Not Nokia, the world's No. 1 mobile phone maker. "FusionOne will be the sync software in every Nokia phone," says John Malloy, manager of Nokia's venture fund.
Starfish, based in Scotts Valley, Calif., was purchased by Motorola in July 1998 for several hundred million dollars. The company was started in 1994 by Kahn, the founder of Borland, when he left the ailing software company and took its Sidekick, a DOS-based personal information manager, with him. Starfish does for devices what Sidekick did for the PC: It provides users with quick access to names and numbers. Kahn describes Starfish as the technology behind "personal area networks" - that is, a wireless, real-time link between all your devices and applications.
And while Starfish may have been jilted by Nokia, the company has found other relationships online. It furnishes the sync technology for Excite's and Yahoo's planner services, which allow users to update their calendars, contacts, tasks and memos with Palms, CEs, Outlook, Notes and other applications.
Robin Nijor, Starfish's marketing VP, says the company landed the portal deals because it can do something neither Puma nor FusionOne can: multipoint synchronization. "What [the portals] wanted was the ability to sync your server calendar and your desktop [personal information manager] of choice and your Pilot simultaneously. Nobody else can deliver that."
Say you have a contact database in Act, a calendar in Outlook, another calendar on the Web, a Rex in your wallet and a Palm V in your pocket - that's five systems, all used at various times. Querying those devices and knowing which one is right is a headache, Kahn says. "Its really a hassle to first synchronize your Palm device with the desktop, then synchronize this to the Web. You just want to take a single step and have all of the information synchronized automatically, everywhere." Multisync, he explains, takes care of it.
Los Gatos, Calif.-based FusionOne is located geographically between Starfish and Puma, but it's using a different conceptual map than its two competitors.
The privately held startup, funded by Nokia Ventures, 3Com Ventures and El Dorado Ventures, was founded in 1998. Like the other two firms, it is after the calendar-contact sync market, but it also wants to offer a way to manage larger documents such as Photoshop files and PowerPoint presentations.
"The synchronization space that we're in just happens to be a small but compelling component of what we do," says FusionOne CEO Rick Onyon. "We're really a digital vault for all of your content and we're the technology to deliver it - in whatever shape it needs to be in - to all of your edge devices."
When you first sign on to FusionOne's eDock.com (now in beta testing) you specify which files and folders you want to access from anywhere. You get a free account with 25MB (prices for more storage haven't yet been set). The files you select are then placed, in encrypted form, on FusionOne's servers.
Then, whenever you use a device or application, eDock first checks to make sure you've got the most recent data; if you don't, it will send the new portions to your device.
To illustrate, Onyon offers his "Mona Lisa-with-a-mustache scenario." Say you've got a 3MB image of the Mona Lisa on your hard drive at work. The first time you access it on your notebook machine via eDock, you'll have to download the entire file from the server. But after that, only changes in the file will be sent back and forth. So when you paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa with the Photoshop software on your notebook, the next time you open the file on your desktop computer eDock will send just the 2KB or 4KB containing the mustache to update the original image.
In the FusionOne world, devices smaller than a notebook are considered simply remote-control devices for your content. Example: You're at the airport and you get a call from your boss asking for a report, which you left on your office computer. You can use your cell phone to connect to eDock, view the directory of files on your desktop machine, tag the pertinent file, then punch in your boss' e-mail and send the report. Or say you're in a hotel room and you want to read your e-mail - but you're nowhere near a computer. You can use your Palm V and a wireless modem from Novatel Wireless (which is bundling FusionOne's software with its new Palm V modems) to instruct eDock to direct all of your e-mail to the hotel's fax machine.
EDock's free basic service will be supported through advertising, using a somewhat controversial method of targeting. Though FusionOne won't know what's inside the files you store on its servers (because they'll be encrypted), it will know which applications you're using and it will offer that information to advertisers. FusionOne hopes to license eDock.com to established portals; in January, the company announced that Snap.com will use FusionOne technology to help its 10 million subscribers sync their devices, phones and desktop applications.
But - and there's always a but - don't count out a number of less-well-known sync companies, including Riverbed (which provides the technology for Palm's HotSync). Any of them could get picked up by a major content or service provider, or a device manufacturer, and score an upset.