Make .Mac .Mobile

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Date: Sunday, March 19th, 2006, 21:52
Category: Mobile Phone, Opinion

Getting data from .Mac to mobile handsets doesn’t need to be so difficult.
Currently Apple’s approach is desktop-bound, adding a handset to iSync and letting your mobile phone talk to iCal and Address Book. But there is a much better way to do this that I’m surprised Apple hasn’t moved on yet. I can only assume that they will, and soon, but until then I can only grit my teeth and wait for the inevitable.

Apple needs a more vocal mobile strategy

They dabble and they play a bit, and so far what I’ve seen is solid. It isn’t especially transparent but they’re trying. Apple doesn’t like to do anything unless everyone can play, and I think Apple needs to clamp down on the bite-plate and move on this market, hard.
Messaging and communication will soon not take place on the desktop. I strongly believe that all communication will soon be offloaded to mobile devices, if it hasn’t already for many of you. IM, Email, Text Messaging, MMS, and usable syndication for mobile devices is either already available or almost there. Much of your consumption of information can take place on the go now, without requiring a desk-bound reader or user.
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Getting data from .Mac to mobile handsets doesn’t need to be so difficult.
Currently Apple’s approach is desktop-bound, adding a handset to iSync and letting your mobile phone talk to iCal and Address Book. But there is a much better way to do this that I’m surprised Apple hasn’t moved on yet. I can only assume that they will, and soon, but until then I can only grit my teeth and wait for the inevitable.

Apple needs a more vocal mobile strategy

They dabble and they play a bit, and so far what I’ve seen is solid. It isn’t especially transparent but they’re trying. Apple doesn’t like to do anything unless everyone can play, and I think Apple needs to clamp down on the bite-plate and move on this market, hard.
Messaging and communication will soon not take place on the desktop. I strongly believe that all communication will soon be offloaded to mobile devices, if it hasn’t already for many of you. IM, Email, Text Messaging, MMS, and usable syndication for mobile devices is either already available or almost there. Much of your consumption of information can take place on the go now, without requiring a desk-bound reader or user.
I think content creation and authoring and actual work will continue to take place on the desktop, but that most of our “interrupts” will move to a personal device you can take with you. If you have any doubt about this, just consider the following: when you call someone, and you have 3 numbers listed (home, work, mobile), which one do you call first? You probably call the mobile. You want to call a person, not a location. Why would you call places when you can call the pocket of the individual you actually want to reach? Email inboxes are locations for most people, they get email at their desk at home, or at their desk at the office, or at a WiFi hotspot or on the road with a tethered connection to their mobile operator. Still: not the individual, you’re relying on computers, desktop or laptop.
In the last few years, mobile synchronization over-the-air (OTA) has really blossomed. I don’t just mean mobile office devices like the BlackBerry or your GoodLink’ed Treo 650s either. There are a ton of players throwing their weight around in this space. Good, RIM, Microsoft, and others have competing technology to allow mobile devices to keep a calendar, inbox, task list, and notes in sync with the desktop and enterprise.
Why not Apple?
Apple has been mum about any big movements they want to make in this space. This may be because they’re trying to change the entire world, but while they sit in silence, the market is moving onward and getting harder and harder to work against.

What to do?

Apple should release OTA SyncML services for .Mac.

Answering the inevitable: What does that give me?

Most mobile phones released in the last couple of years support SyncML OTA. They allow you to point your handset at a syncronization server and get tasks, calendars, contacts, and even email via a syncronization. Yes, really.
This is an open standard. By adopting this strategy, Apple doesn’t require client-side software, expensive infrastructure for small businesses and individuals, and gets Address Book, iCal, and even .Mac email right into a mobile device almost magically.

Examples and Use Case

Sam is sitting in her home office on her way to a client meeting. Sam just got an email about another meeting later that day, and accepts it into iCal. She leaves her home office for that meeting and while en route, her mobile phone updates against the .Mac Sync Server and updates Sam’s handset with the next meeting, even though she forgot to initiate a local sync when she was near her computer.
Chris is at a party and accepts a vCard via Bluetooth from a new friend to the Contacts list on their mobile phone. When Chris gets home that new contact is waiting in Address Book, ready for emails, calls, and text messages.
Consider also that this could take place with any subscribed calendar, and you can easily see how useful this could be. If you share calendars with people in your household or office, those changes made to the subscribed calendar would also be pushed down to your mobile device. When your spouse adds an appointment to your calendar, you get the update no matter where you are.

Not the Microsoft Method

The new ActiveSync services that Microsoft is rolling out are heavily reliant on having a Microsoft Infrastructure. True, they’ll support OTA sync to a variety of devices, but it means some organizations will have to buy or upgrade Exchange and other critical components to make it work, new handsets in some circumstances will also have to be acquired, leaving small organizations and many individual users in the cold. If Apple is willing to concede this market completely to Microsoft, they should continue to do nothing to fight them.
Not only that, but shops that choose to not adopt the Microsoft way of doing email and collaboration are using open standards such as IMAP, vCal, vCard and LDAP instead, making them much more compatible with the vast majority of devices and workstations on the market.
Simply having a strong OTA option for synchronization of mobile devices gives Apple a leg-up for .Mac users, as well as gives people a reason to sign-up for service or continue service with .Mac in spite of what can only be lackluster support and often expensive, but very well integrated, services.
Additionally, Apple could bundle a workgroup/business version of this service in Mac OS X Server. It would probably be trivial, I’ve played with Sync4J’s SyncML server, and it does run on Mac OS X Server with minimal fussing. Thanks, Apple, for including J2EE.

Build the infrastructure, Users are waiting

Apple’s only option at this point is to go into mobile market heavy with services such as this, or concede it to Nokia and Microsoft, which are decidedly hostile to Mac users.
While Apple waits, the offerings from the likes of Microsoft, RIM, Nokia and Sony Ericsson for all-in-one communicators with services such as 3G data services, WiFi, and media players, are maturing. Unified messaging and multimedia already exists in the marketplace, and the answer to this isn’t bigger iPods. Quite honestly, the iPod cannot last forever, and at this point it is still a one-trick pony. Granted, that one trick: music and media to go, is executed and mimicked everywhere, but those mimicks are getting better and better and users are very interested in moving music and media to a personal device that also has the ability to communicate and assist in the lives of the users.
We are going mobile. Apple should be there too.
So while Apple has managed to completely transform the act of taking music with you, they need to apply that same Kung-Fu of unity to other aspects of the lives of individuals.
Nothing says that Apple shouldn’t continue to improve iSync for desk-bound sync with local devices. Not everyone wants to buy a data plan that would be required for OTA sync. But a lot of people do, and this method would be much more convenient and reliable. There is nothing wrong with cutting into RIM and Microsoft’s pockets, and right now Apple is conceding those budgets directly to them.
This post originally ran at KVET.CH, Emory’s weblog.

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