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.
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.
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.