Last Christmas a major oil company gave out 3,000 Palm and other handheld devices to its employees as gifts. It was a nice gesture, but the IT department paid the price a few weeks later when word came down from upper management to integrate those devices and all the data on them into the company’s core business.
Welcome to the brave new world of device and data synchronization, the critical task of seamlessly updating data across multiple devices. Here, everything from personal digital assistants (PDAs)?such as Palms and Compaq iPAQ Handhelds?to cell phones and BlackBerry two-way e-mail devices slips through the corporate back door or strolls in the front.
“It’s like in the early days of the PC,” when users snuck PCs into corporations, creating islands of computing cut off from the mainstream of corporate data, says Pete Grillo, director of synchronization services with Palm. And once again, CIOs face the daunting problem of bringing those unauthorized purchases into the fold, says Tim Scannell, an analyst with the Mountain View, Calif.-based Mobile Insights research and consulting group. That means finding ways to synchronize corporate and personal data (contact information, to-do lists, personal calendars and similar information) among the disparate pieces of hardware and technologies.
Three Ways to Sync
Generally, there are three ways that portable devices synchronize their data?directly with an individual PC using built-in or add-on software, via a Web portal and using enterprise-level software that synchronizes not just personal information but enterprise data as well.
The most common is individual synchronization, in which the device connects directly to and synchronizes with its owner’s data on a PC. PDAs come with this capability, but that synchronization is often limited. For example, there’s no way to synchronize Lotus Notes with a Palm device using Palm’s built-in software.
Being unable to synchronize explains the need for add-in software, such as Pumatech’s Intellisync, which lets individuals synchronize with Notes as well as Novell GroupWise and other applications. But Intellisync, and other software like it, is designed more for individual syncing than for sharing corporate data.
For a more robust approach, some users sync through Web-based portals or application service providers (ASPs) such as fusionOne (www.fusionone.com), WeSync.com (www.wesync.com) or Yahoo’s calendar (calendar.yahoo.com). This approach has several advantages over software-based syncing. For example, portals can sync all of a person’s devices?desktop and laptop PCs, PDA and cell phones?whereas software usually supports a limited menu of devices. Some ASPs, such as the Palm-owned WeSync.com, lets several people share calendars with each other.
But while it may be convenient for people to sync data with their own devices or share their calendars with others, those connections still don’t do much for an entire organization. They don’t, for instance, allow people to tap in to sales-force automation or CRM systems remotely and synchronize that vital data with their portable devices from the road.
“Few of these devices are being used as corporate enterprise resources…right now there’s very little mission-critical information on them,” says Scannell, because it’s so difficult to synchronize the personal data commonly found on them with the enterprise data found on corporate servers and databases.
The enterprise space is where the third type of synchronization?and the most important one?comes into play.
Vendors are rushing to provide tools that forge a link between PDAs and enterprise applications. Coola offers its InterChange middleware platform that lets companies build systems to transfer data and applications between mobile devices. Synchrologic offers a server-based iMobile suite that enables wireless or wired synchronization between enterprise systems and mobile devices. Aether Systems focuses primarily on wireless access and synchronization with enterprise systems, and Pylon Pro, from Hayward, Calif.-based AvantGo, lets individuals synchronize their Palm data with Lotus Notes, including custom-built enterprise databases.
Despite the arrival of the necessary tools, most companies still don’t provide highly integrated, enterprisewide data synchronization. A Mobile Insights survey found that less than 20 percent of PDA owners use their handheld devices to tap directly into centralized data resources. Most simply connect using occasional “docking synchronization” that happens about once a day, and they do it primarily to retrieve basic information, such as addresses and phone numbers.
There are some pioneers, however. Domino’s Pizza, for example, has a staff of quality control auditors who visit franchises across the country to do audits and surveys. Before the auditors go out to the field they synchronize with corporate systems and load Palm Vs with surveys and information about each franchise they’ll visit, says CIO Tim Monteith. After the survey, the store manager can sign the findings right on the Palm. Wireless technology then transports the data directly back to the enterprise system. And data can flow both ways so that the auditor can find out when his schedule of site visits has changed, for example.
“The win for us will be that it will allow auditors to visit more stores each week, so they’re more productive,” Monteith says. “It will also make sure that our data is more accurate.” And, he notes, store managers will buy in to the process more easily if they can see and sign the survey onsite.
Data synchronization is also vital in sales-force automation. Todd Christy, managing director of consulting for Pyxis Consulting, a technology consulting company to the financial services industry in Wellesley, Mass., says the push is to go beyond personal information management-type content (names, addresses and phone numbers) and to synchronize enterprise data?specifically sales data, performance reports and client prospecting information.
Pyxis built a synchronization system for a large mutual funds company that lets the sales force receive a subset of the sales and marketing system on their Palm devices. When someone syncs his Palm with a remote server, only his sales information, contact information and targeted news are sent back to him?other people’s information stays on the server, and the updated information on his Palm is sent to the server as well. The salesperson can then use the synced data on a sales call and synchronize back to the enterprise system after the call.
Christy offers advice for any company looking to set up an enterprisewide synchronization system: “The number-one success factor is scope control. We put together a very simple set of needs and business requirements and stuck to them tightly.” That means, Christy says, forgoing some things that can be incorporated later?for example, synchronization in both directions and starting out with wireless sync.
Analysts International, an IT consulting group in Minneapolis, is also using synchronization for its sales force. The company has outfitted salespeople with Palms that they synchronize with a Lotus Notes CRM database using Pylon Pro. Before salespeople leave the office, they sync with Notes to retrieve the most current customer information. After the call, the syncing updates the central database with any new information. The key to any synchronization plan isn’t a technical one?it’s based on business needs, says Joanne Bocci, managing director for mobile and wireless practice for Analysts International. “The biggest key isn’t the tools, it’s formulating a strategy that is driven by business considerations?how to provide better customer service with better productivity and a positive return on investment.”
Where It’s All Heading
Those are isolated stories; that kind of enterprise synchronization rarely happens today. But the business benefits seem so compelling that such corporate connections are clearly the wave of the future. And CIOs are already looking ahead.
Domino’s Monteith sees the day when a delivery person arrives at your door with a hot pizza and a handheld device that can give the driver directions, accept and verify credit cards on the spot, and deliver customer information back to the office?in other words, always-accessible data synchronization.
Palm’s Grillo says that in the next few years, handheld devices will be able to hold a gigabyte or more of data and that high-speed wireless connectivity will become the norm. Small devices will be able to hold reams of enterprise data, and synchronization will become a background task?from the moment the device is turned on, it will continually synchronize with corporate systems, he says.
Mobile Insight’s Scannell agrees. “All the interim solutions you see today will go away. As we move to always-on wireless synchronization, all devices will continually update each other, with content and applications constantly being shuttled back and forth,” he says. “You’ll be able to roam as well, so that if you’re in an 802.11 wireless network in an airport and you leave that bubble of connectivity, you’ll automatically hook back up via cellular. That’s the goal, anyway.”
How long it will take to happen, though, is anyone’s guess. Until then, CIOs will have to wrestle with the day-to-day realities of building their own bridges among these islands of information. n