Apple: iSync, Therefore I Jam

What's in a number? With the release of iSync 1.1 last week, Apple has vastly improved its mobile device support, but Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin notes the Mac could still use a few tweaks to become the best platform for working with mobile devic

Its often hard to tell whether Apple is in denial or just decoying before it barrels into a market. For instance, the company was slow on the draw to include CD burners in Macs, but then came in Guns n Roses a-blazing not only with great disc-burning support, but iTunes, the white-hot iPod and now the red-hot iTunes Music Store. It also scooped up professional music software developer Emagic and appointed Board member Al Gore, who invented music. OK, Apple, youve made your point. You get music.

A similar, though less dramatic, pattern has occurred with synchronization. For years, there was a paucity of good options for synchronizing the Mac to portable devices. Palm was slow to bundle Mac synchronization for its handhelds, and most of the phone vendors ignored the platform. One hero in this malaise was longtime Mac developer Mark/Space, which developed a product called The Missing Sync to exchange data between Sony Clies and Macs. But that all changed last week when Apple released iSync 1.1.

Its hard enough to get one piece of software working right with any of these quirky devices, but its downright impressive that Apple has suddenly been able to support so wide a variety. Furthermore, iSync has gone beyond the basics, adding goodies like photo support for handsets such as the Sony Ericsson P800. Steve Jobs recently revealed that in lieu of developing Apple cell phones or PDAs, the company would focus on making those devices as comfortable around a Mac as a transparent optical mouse.

With iSync 1.1, the product has gone from a niche solution that worked only with a couple of Bluetooth phones to covering more than 20 models. In doing so, it has allowed the Mac to eclipse Windows in its support for mobile phones and to fall just short in support for mobile devices overall. What will Apple need to pull ahead?

  • Universal backup/restore and installer. Ultimately, even very good synchronization is only part of the problem when dealing with mobile devices. As the devices powered by platforms such as Palm OS and Symbian grow, Apple will need to accommodate application and media installers as well as backup and restore options.
  • PocketPC. Third parties have been working on solutions for syncing PocketPCs with Macs. The one from PocketMac is currently shipping, while a very slick one from Mark/Space (which uses iSync) is not. Nevertheless, Apple needs to recognize that Pocket PCs are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Apple should also hop on the USB 2.0 bandwagon because pretty soon mobile appendages such as cradles will move to that standard.
  • Smarter sync. Its amazing how dumb synchronization has remained since the days of the first Palm Pilot. Try this. In your calendar, write "Lunch with Joe," and at the same time, write the exact same thing on your handheld. Bet your syncing program flags this as a conflict. Why wont someone infuse a little artificial intelligence into sync to reconcile such "conflicts"?

Data synchronization is evaporating as a market, but its still a critical task to be done well if companies like Apple want to enable a digital hub.

Are you struggling with syncing your wireless devices? Is Apple taking the right approach? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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