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New Web-Based Services Synchronize Your Organizers 

by Tom Bunzel (tombunzel@wwwiz.com) 

          Although the argument about whether the network-centric terminal will replace the business PC may have subsided, business users continue to wrestle with the task of synchronizing and updating their crucial contact information.

          In many cases, the Web is offering a compelling solution.

          Calendars, tasks, notes, addresses and email reside in multiple locations, making it as likely as not that the very piece of data that a user wants is… somewhere else.  The original note may have been entered into a Palm Pilot, a REX, a PC, a Web phone or even a pager, but now it's God knows where.

          Contact management programs and personal information managers (PIMs) have worked for years at synchronizing these crucial tasks.  The first Windows CE devices had a desktop icon in Windows for this purpose, so that files could be dragged between a palmtop device and its Microsoft Office counterparts–first Schedule +, then Outlook.

          The popularity of the Pilot has similarly derived from its one-touch synchronization capabilities, and software applications have been quick to make their data available to transfer utilities.

          But of course, once the data is on a server, which can be accessed from any browser, it presents a terrific way to manage personal and professional information.  It also provides one more backup for this important information; if your desktop or handheld device loses its data, the information can be restored from the Web.

          Nor surprisingly Yahoo! was at the forefront of this effort in its early stages.

          Shortly after My Yahoo, the company offered free email, followed in short order by a Web-posted address list and calendar. But initially, users had to keystroke their entries in, which made it an inconvenient endeavor.

          But at David Coursey's Internet Showcase 1999 in San Diego, Phillippe Kahn, formerly of Starfish Software, maker of the popular Sidekick PIM, and now of Motorola, showed off a partnership with Yahoo.

          In one fell swoop, using beta software and a dial-up connection, Kahn synchronized a Sidekick database with Microsoft Outlook, a REX organizer connected to a Startac phone, and an online database of addresses and a calendar from My Yahoo.

          The utility that makes this possible is TrueSynch, which is offered for free with Sidekick, and is also available for Microsoft Outlook and many other products, including Excite!, which we will address later in the article.

          The user decides which parts of which database have priority (will override the entries in the others) and then connects the devices.  In the case of the Web, of course, the browser goes to My Yahoo (and an online connection needs to be established).

            To invoke synchronization to the tiny credit card-sized REX fromFranklin Electronics, the unit can be placed in a Palm-like docking sleeve. It can also slide into a notebook's PCMCIA slot.  (If you are purchasing the REX and want the docking station, make sure the version you buy includes it in the package). 

          Between Outlook and Sidekick, the programs just need to be loaded.

          But now, with the latest version of TrueSynch, and a downloaded beta version from Yahoo, a four-way synchronization is possible.  Here's the scenario.

q      Complex calendars, to-dos and addresses can be kept in Outlook, which has hundreds of database fields and is popular with application developers for large local area networked companies.

q      Simpler contact lists and a pretty color-coded calendar can be kept in Sidekick, which is more suited for single users and small businesses.

q      Travel versions for quick access to phone numbers, or connection to a portable phone can be kept in the tiny REX.  While direct data entry is possible, it is difficult with single keystrokes required through the tiny icon-based keyboard.

q      Finally, all of the information can be uploaded to and downloaded from My Yahoo and Excite Planner. 

          If one is traveling without any high tech devices, changes can be made in any browser to the Yahoo calendar and address book, which includes tasks and meeting scheduling capabilities.

          Then, one or more of the other databases can be synchronized via TrueSynch on a laptop or desktop. The TrueSynch logo is a Mandala-like circle at the center of two or more databases, each of which you customize for synchronization.  When hot-synching begins, the mandala rotates as each device gets and sends its data to the others.  At the conclusion, a user log describes any errors or omissions.

          Many times the laptop will be available, so that the databases in Outlook or Sidekick can be updated as information changes.  Now the REX and Yahoo databases can be synchronized when convenient, serving not only as an added reference point for the data, but as a secondary backup for information that will now never be lost.

          Even if the laptop is stolen, any desktop can download the data from the Web by accessing My Yahoo or Excite, or the data can be retrieved from the REX, Palm Pilot or Windows CE device by reversing the synchronization process.

          Imagine the security of knowing the data is always somewhere nearby–just a few years ago everyone had a Dayrunner or similar planning book the loss of which caused unimaginable problems unless every entry was physically duplicated.

          Now, to compete with other Web-based calendars, Yahoo is offering ``My Time Guides," which allow you to overlay your favorite events or schedules on your personal calendar.

          Time guides can be maintained by categories or with recurring events of interest, and are shown in the calendar's usual daily, weekly or monthly views.  With each link to an event, if a timeguide is invoked, a calendar is updated, and again, this information will be synchronized with PC-based PIMs and the REX.

          Timeguides are currently available and customizable for sports, clubs, friends and holidays.  Entertainment is probably next.

          With whom is Yahoo competing with this added feature?

          Excite, not surprisingly, has also entered this area in a big way.  Using the TrueSynch technology, Excite supports Windows 95, 98 and NT 4.0 platforms. Palm users must have Palm Desktop and HotSync versions 3.0 or higher installed.

TrueSync for Excite synchronizes your Excite Planner with applications and devices including: Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Schedule+, ACT! 3.x and 4.x, Lotus Notes and Organizer, TrueSync Desktop, Sidekick 98/99, Palm Desktop–Palm Pilot, Palm III, REX PRO and Motorola PageWriter 2000X. The Excite Planner has a very nice interface, on which the user can see to-do's, notes, a calendar and contact list laid out in a customized fashion.

          One start-up in this space is Jump!, which focuses entirely on customized calendars with integrated Web links.

          Jump is colorful and well designed, with a look that strongly resembles a Dayrunner.  Views are accessed by tabs and synchronization is available using IntelliSynch, a competitor to TrueSynch, with ACT!, Outlook and Lotus Organizer. A synchronization capability to the Palm is expected soon, along with a new version of the Jump! online calendar.  (The free beta period just expired). 

          An interesting aspect of the Jump! calendar is the introduction of  ``groups" of shared calendars–a scenario in which like-minded users can exchange information and plan events together online.

          For Web and device coordination, Jump! uses IntelliSynch from Puma Technologies, the main competitor to TrueSynch.  The latest version, Intellisynch Gold, provides a powerful synchronization solution enabling mobile users to keep their most important information, including calendars, e-mail, contacts and tasks constantly up-to-date between Palm Computing platform and Windows CE devices and the broadest range of PC applications. The latest release of Intellisync builds on Puma Technology's patented Data Synchronization Extensions Technology (DSX Technology engine), offering advanced capabilities like full conflict resolution, field mapping and filtering to ensure accuracy and reliability.

          Field mapping is well known to users of PIMs–the lack of the capability can cause problems and popular programs like ACT! allow the user to save maps for reuse.  For Web synchronizing it means that you can determine where certain information is sent–like making sure that a mobile number from one device goes into a field called  ``cell phone" in another.

          As portals and application developers continue to embellish these products, they will doubtless work better with cell phones and other thin-client Web appliances.  In addition, both virtual and physical communities will get into the act.

          For example, networked communities may well offer some sort of calendar/synchronization scenario as a timesaving utility for homeowners and residents, but integrated with local services and institutions.

          Community Vision, Inc., in Summerlin, Nevada, is targeting master-planned communities with a turnkey Intranet system that features some of this functionality.  While most of the calendars and group capability to date have been centered on ``virtual" communities like Yahoo or Excite, members of local communities or organizations will demand similar services without paying the high prices of corporate ``groupware" solutions or enterprise software.

          In addition, DSL and cable companies with subscriber bases will doubtless begin to look into timesaving services that link PC-based calendar and address-book capabilities with similar applications on their servers.

          The concept remains the same–the data is available in two (or more) places–on a server and on your hard drive(s).  To lose everything is nearly impossible, and by a disciplined plan of updates and synchronization, appointments, meetings and addresses are always backed up.

          It's really the best of two worlds, the network computer and the popular desktop PC–synchronized to keep the latest data available–whether online, through a personal information device, or a combination of the two. 

Tom Bunzel works as ``Painless PC," a consulting and training facility in West Los Angeles, specializing in business, presentation and web-authoring applications.  He can be reached at (310) 286-0969 or tom.bunzel@painlesspc.com.

 

 

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