Outlook Needs SyncML

Here's an idea for a product that might change the face of Outlook as we know it—an add-in that would let Outlook synchronize with any server that supports Synchronization Markup Language. SyncML is an Internet standard for platform-independent, two-way connectivity between client and server devices. It uses XML to package the data and operates over a variety of wireless and wired protocols.

SyncML relies on Internet standard data formats—such as vCard for contacts and vCalendar or iCalendar for appointments—to ensure that different clients can access the data. If you use a mobile phone to get contact or appointment data from a server, the phone either already uses SyncML or will in the future. In August 2001, the WAP Forum released Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) 2.0 for mobile devices and announced that WAP 2.0 uses SyncML for synchronization. Nokia, Motorola, and Ericsson have shipped several lines of SyncML-enabled phones.

In theory, if Outlook were SyncML-enabled, it could communicate with any SyncML-compliant server just as easily as Outlook communicates with IMAP and POP/SMTP servers. For example, British firm Toffa International ( http://www.toffa.com ) makes a product called SyncWiseMobile that synchronizes Novell GroupWise information with SyncML-enabled devices. If Outlook were SyncML-capable, users could use SyncWiseMobile instead of Novell's Messaging API (MAPI) provider to connect to a GroupWise server.

If Outlook could operate as both a SyncML server and a SyncML client, Outlook would offer a potential solution to the often-voiced demand for an easy way to synchronize Outlook data between desktop and laptop or between home and office. (Offline folders provide a synchronization solution for Outlook only in Exchange Server environments.)

At its latest SyncFest, held in Boston last month, the SyncML Initiative certified eight new clients and four new servers as compliant, bringing the total list of SyncML-compliant devices to 44 clients and 25 servers. Microsoft is conspicuously absent from the list of the initiative's supporting companies, which includes Ericsson, IBM, Motorola, Nokia, Openwave Systems, Panasonic, Symbian, and hundreds of other firms.

One type of SyncML application relevant to Outlook is "mobility middleware." For example, the XTNDConnect Server product from Extended Systems ( http://www.extendedsystems.com ) lets mobile device users synchronize with Exchange, Lotus Notes, or Domino servers. In addition to providing direct support for Palm and Pocket PC devices, XTNDConnect supports SyncML-enabled devices and offers a software toolkit to help manufacturers of phones and other equipment incorporate SyncML into their products. Starfish Software ( http://www.starfish.com ), developer of TrueSync software, and Pumatech ( http://www.pumatech.com ), with its Intellisync software, are also players in this highly competitive area. (Pumatech filed a patent-infringement action last month against Extended Systems citing deliberate infringement of seven synchronization patents held by Pumatech.)

Another type of SyncML application is the full-blown Web-based personal information manager (PIM) with built-in synchronization—for example, SyncStudio from Korean firm 3RSoft ( http://www.3rsoft.com ) and Weblicon Organizer from the German company Weblicon Technologies(http://www.weblicon.net ). Weblicon's Outlook synchronization utility uses SyncML over HTTP to communicate with the server. Weblicon says it plans to develop a session provider for Microsoft ActiveSync software for Pocket PC synchronization to let ActiveSync (and Pocket PC) use SyncML to communicate with the Weblicon SyncML server. Swiss company Serial ( http://www.serial.ch ) is another firm targeting mobile phone operators and ISPs who want to offer PIM and other data synchronization services to their customers. Its [email protected] Package includes a SyncML-compliant server component that can connect to many types of databases. The company also offers an Outlook-compatible PC client component that lets non-SyncML devices connect to the server over HTTP.

Perhaps the most intriguing solution comes from French firm Voxmobili ( http://www.voxmobili.com ). Not only does the company use a SyncML server and SyncML- and Outlook-compatible desktop software to provide basic data synchronization, but Voxmobili also offers a complete collaboration solution. The company's Voxoffice product supports sharing of documents, calendars, company directories, and other information, both within an organization and with clients, suppliers, and other external partners. In many ways, Voxoffice resembles Microsoft SharePoint Team Services, except that Voxoffice has the synchronization component that SharePoint Team Services lacks, plus at least rudimentary workflow capability.

SyncML-compliant clients and servers
SyncML—Getting the mobile Internet in sync

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