Managing the Metadata Is Key
INSIDE MOBILE: Sharing Information Across a PC, the Web and Mobile
I'm sure that you need, at times, to get access to information located on the Web or in your PC while mobile. Take the case of having some favorite photos that you'd like to have available on your mobile phone to share with friends. Or you might like to share a photo album via the Web with family and friends. Or you might want to keep your contacts and calendar on one system "in sync" between two computers and the Web and your phone. Or you might want to share the latest version of a (possibly large) file with a number of others.
The problem of information-sharing is very simple to define and visualize, but it's quite difficult to actually do in a manner that works technically and is also easy to use. Here's why.
There are a number of different data types that users can create on a PC or Mac. For example, there are photo types such as JPEG and GIF; text types such as .txt, .doc and .docx; music types such as MP3, Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), Windows WAV files and Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF); video types such as Windows Media Format (WMF), Musical Video Interactive (MVI), MPEG and QuickTime MPEG-4 part 2 or M4V; and spreadsheet types such as .xls and .xlsx. There are also presentation types such as .ppt and .pptx, and more complicated file types such as Microsoft Outlook Personal Storage Table (.pst). That, itself, contains internal sub-file types for calendar, contacts, tasks and e-mail. There are also file types such as Adobe Acrobat (PDF) and many more.
All of a sudden, you have a tremendous technical challenge if you want to share and view files across a PC to the Web to a mobile phone. On top of this, mobile represents another challenge not typically found between the PC and the Web: the screens are smaller and the files may have to be modified in order to provide a good viewing experience on the smaller device.
One of the first companies that attempted to do this was FusionOne (http://www.fusionone.com). They raised more than $100 million in venture capital. They were going to create data centers around the world to store the information shared via the Web, and they attempted to allow users to view information on their phone. They found it too difficult and ended up focusing their technology in one area: backing up data on cell phones. This has become a viable business for them.
MobileMe and SugarSync
A few companies have recently developed technology that again addresses the sharing and viewing of information across the PC and/or MAC, the Web and the mobile phone. Apple has launched MobileMe, which allows users to sync information from their PC, Mac, the Web and their iPhone. It cost $99 per year.
There were a number of technical difficulties when it was first introduced that demonstrated how difficult it is to solve this problem elegantly. But now, Apple has the service working. Remember, this is a subset of the more generic problem, as MobileMe isn't designed to be a backup service (although it does achieve that for calendar and contact information) and it only syncs to the iPhone (not to any other mobile devices).
Sharpcast announced SugarSync early last year and has received rave reviews. They provide backup and viewing for many file types, especially photos. But they do not back up Outlook PST files or sync Outlook contact or calendar entries across the Web and onto mobile phones-although they have told me they will provide support for such services sometime this year.
SugarSync is priced according to the amount of information that is backed up, and costs range from $2.49 per month for 2 GB to $24.95 per month for 250 GB. I like SugarSync's user interface. The product is easy to use, even though it won't yet back up all of the data on your system. But it does an excellent job backing up and then enabling viewing on the Web and phone for the file types it does support.
Managing the Metadata Is Key
Managing the metadata is key
The key to enabling an information-sharing and syncing service is to manage the metadata around the actual data. If I define a JPEG image file, part of the information is the type of file (JPEG), and the information about the image (such as resolution, date and time it was taken and, possibly, the location). It might also contain a simple thumbnail version of the image that provides a peek into the actual image. These are useful when viewing lots of images so that you can see what's in the image without actually having to open it.
Soonr is another young company that has developed a solution for sharing and remotely accessing a user's information. Their solution is sold through telecommunications and SAAS (software as a service) providers under their own brands. Soonr integrates collaboration, continuous backup with versioning, and ability to easily find, monitor and take action on documents even when all you have is a mobile phone. They've developed browser-based mobile applications and, so far, the service has been used on more than 800 different devices. Most recently, Soonr has added an iPhone native client, leveraging many parts of the existing mobile Web application. You'll be hearing more about Soonr in 2009 as they broaden their market from Europe into the United States.
Systems such as Sharpcast SugarSync focus on syncing and sharing the metadata first and the actual file later. Thus, when you add a photo to a folder, SugarSync uploads the metadata very quickly so it appears to be on the Web and the mobile device-when, in fact, the full file (or appropriate subset on the mobile device) shows up later. Sharpcast has developed a way to work in the background, uploading files while the user's system is fully available. They compress and do some novel things so that it appears to be uploading data faster than the underlying link.
The key to companies such as Sharpcast and Soonr is how fast they get adopted by the large players in the Internet and mobile space. Sharpcast offers the SugarSync service to users, but their future success is tied to how soon they are adopted by companies such as EarthLink, Comcast and AT&T Wireless that will provide millions of customers with their information-sharing and syncing service.
Additional information-sharing services
I'd be remiss if I didn't point out other successful information-sharing services such as KodakGallery and HP Shutterfly (both photos-only), FTP (any file to/from the Web, but not viewing), YouTube (video only up to 10 minutes) and Google Documents (which allows users to store their latest files and others to access, thus always having the latest version of the file). And, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace allow users to upload specific information from their PC and share it with friends. These services are not designed, however, to store all of the information on a user's system.
Information sharing and viewing across PCs, Macs, the Web and mobile is different from just doing backup and is a much harder problem to solve. In the future, I'd like to see a service like SugarSync (or some other company) provide users with the ability to share photos, videos and just about any file type across multiple PCs, the Web and mobile.
Someday-I hope within five years-all of us will use such an information-sharing and syncing service and wonder how we got along without it before.
J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D., is the VP and Chief Analyst with the Frost & Sullivan North American Information & Communication Technologies Practice. As a nationally recognized industry authority, he focuses on monitoring and analyzing emerging trends, technologies and market behavior in the mobile computing and wireless data communications industry in North America. Since joining Frost & Sullivan in 2006, Dr. Purdy has been specializing in mobile and wireless devices, wireless data communications and connection to the infrastructure that powers the data in the wireless handheld. He is author of Inside Mobile & Wireless, which provides industry insights and reaches over 100,000 readers per month.
For more than 16 years, Dr. Purdy has been consulting, speaking, researching, networking, writing and developing state-of-the-art concepts that challenge people's mind-sets, and developing new ways of thinking and forecasting in the mobile computing and wireless data arenas. Often quoted, his ideas and opinions are followed closely by thought leaders in the mobile & wireless industry. He has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclosure Statement: From time to time, I may have a direct or indirect equity position in a company that is mentioned in this column. If that situation happens, then I'll disclose it at that time. I have an affiliation with IDG Ventures.