Airtime

Out of Sync


By Carlo Longino

Syncing contacts is an issue that has affected nearly every mobile phone user, even if they haven't realized it. A lot of the talk about syncing involves business types trying to move their contact info from Outlook to a Treo, but the average Joe faces considerable syncing woes, too, when attempting to move numbers from old handsets to new ones. While there are solutions phone companies could implement right now—if they really cared—users basically remain on their own when it comes to moving numbers around.

Most of us have been there at some point: our old phone craps out, leaving us high and dry. The problem isn't just not being able to make and receive calls, it's that the address book on our phones has taken over for the one in our brains or elsewhere. How many numbers do you still have memorized? The last time you got a new number from someone, what did you do with it? Chances are you just entered it into your phone, typed in a name, and never really thought about it again. Is it convenient? Absolutely. But when you lose that book, you're kinda screwed.

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The same goes for buying a new handset. Any joy at having a shiny new phone quickly disappears when you realize you've got to re-enter, by hand, all those names and numbers. Some phones can send business cards by infrared or Bluetooth, but they generally only let users send them one at a time. One of the supposed benefits of GSM phones (like the ones from T-Mobile or Cingular) is that you can copy contacts to the SIM card, then just swap the card into a new phone. But that solution is equally as half-assed as all the others: while most new phones can hold multiple numbers and e-mail addresses under one contact, most SIM cards still can only associate one number with one name. If a user switches carriers, of course, the SIM cards aren't much use at all, as locked handsets won't recognize SIM cards from other operators. Likewise if a phone is lost or stolen.

There are a few solutions out there that aren't totally pathetic. On the T-Mobile Sidekick, for instance, contacts on the device are synced to a user's web account. They can enter contact info on the site (or sync from a program like Outlook), and the information gets sent automatically to the device. And when a user enters new information on the device, it gets synced to the website. The backup is always there should the phone disappear or if the data gets corrupted.

These types of services exist for plenty of other types of phones, but few carriers implement them, presumably to save a few pennies. FusionOne makes one such solution it markets to both carriers and consumers, and Verizon announced last year it would offer the service—for $2 per month. If you re te DIY type, FusionOne does sell a $35 consumer version called MightyPhone, which promises to bring some iSync-like goodness to Windows users and have online backup as well. It uses a standard called SyncML that's appearing in more and more phones. It's intended to take away the compatibility problems that plagued the syncing of yore, allowing different devices from different manufacturers to share contacts.

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If you're waiting for carriers to spend some cash on backup software to make your life easier, it's probably going to be a very long wait. But that doesn't mean there's no hope for the unwashed masses that go around sans Blackberry. How's that? From internet companies that seem to have a slightly better understanding of usability than mobile operators, and the emergence of the "buddy list" as the central contact info repository.

Take, for example, yesterday's news that Yahoo! is working on a phone with Cingular parent SBC. It'll be a Nokia phone that runs on Cingular's network, with Yahoo! services that people already use on the Web—like e-mail, IM, news, and all that personalized My Yahoo! Stuff—tightly integrated into the phone's software. So, if you use Yahoo! e-mail, your address book will be available, and all your preferences will carry over to the phone from the web.

The idea is service convergence. Users have all these different communications platforms they use, and they should span both the phone and the web. I might have 30 people I talk to via IM, and I probably talk to those people via phone and e-mail at times, too—so my contacts application or address book or buddy list or whatever should let me do that all from one place. I scroll down and see Tom's name, and I can then decide how I want to contact him and click accordingly. Where sync comes back into the picture is that since these services span both fixed and mobile networks, all the information has to be updated and available from any device at any time. Phone numbers are no longer isolated on an island; instead, they're part of an integrated set of communications services.

The problem, of course, is that if you don't use Yahoo! for anything, you're still out of luck. But that should change fairly soon, particularly as high-speed 3G networks become more pervasive. As mobile technology improves further, carriers implement IMS and move to all-IP networks. Communications will become more like IM—a packet-based connection between two people&mdashalthough the medium won't just be text, it could be voice, video, messaging or anything. And being able to easily communicate with people over all these different media, from a single point of contact, will be key.

Or, if you're an impatient GSM user, you can try one of those sketchy SIM card reader/writers. Maybe if you're lucky, you can find a keychain version that allows for that anywhere/anytime sync that the rest of us are waiting for.

Carlo Longino is a writer and analyst that follows the mobile industry. He's co-editor of MobHappy, and also an analyst for Techdirt. He can be reached at carlo@mobhappy.com.

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