Sync or Swim?

Steve Litchfield rants about the continuing failure of Symbian software developers to provide faultless synchronisation.

Exactly how difficult is it to synchronise basic, textual information between two different computers? Take contact information, calendar appointments and to-do tasks. No formatting, no images, just plain text, in clearly defined fields. A child could do the job.

In fact, sit a seven year old down with printouts and ask them to spend the dozen hours or so needed to compare the listings from two different computers and they could easily accomplish the job. Actually they couldn't, because they'd get bored after ten minutes and sneak off to their PlayStation, but you get the point. It's not that hard a task. Give it to a computer, perfectly suited for boring, repetitive tasks, and comparing/adjusting two sets of textual data (with appropriate date stamps on each entry) should take no more than a few seconds. And, being a computer, it wouldn't make any mistakes. Or so you'd think.

Let's take an example from the real world. Me. After battling with trying to synchronise my P900 perfectly with Microsoft Outlook, I finally resigned myself, like many others, to the fact that Task categories just weren't going to copy across, with everything ending up in Outlook's 'Unfiled' section. 'OK', I thought, 'I can live with this'. A few weeks on and I'm getting duplicate entries in my Calendar. It turns out that there's a mismatch between how Outlook and UIQ treat repeating entries, with the result being the aforesaid duplicates.

The final straw was (perhaps getting over-confident, after a few weeks without any more mishaps) trying to sync my Nokia N-Gage as well. 'This shouldn't harm anything', I thought, 'it'll just compare entries, realise that my N-Gage is currently empty and stock it up with everything from Outlook's current databases'. The blame for what happened next isn't entirely clear, but on the next sync with my P900 whole swathes of (recent) Calendar entries simply disappeared. Without trace. And the entries that had made it across to the N-Gage were without their attached notes, a limitation of Series 60's Calendar implementation.

Seven or eight years ago, similar problems trying to synchronise Psion palmtops with PC PIMs such as (the then fledgling) Outlook were legendary. And to some extent understandable, since the whole concept of synchronisation was brand new. But this is 2004 and there simply is no excuse. All people want is a basic set of textual fields shared between two connected computers and I really, really struggle to understand why all this is still not 100% foolproof.

It's perhaps not surprising that one of the key factors in the dominance of Palm OS and Pocket PC in the pure PDA form factor has been their superb synchronisation with the desktop. If Symbian smartphones are to seriously take market share away from these traditional PDAs then more effort needs to be put into synchronisation and more consistent PIM applications.

Steve Litchfield, Oct 2004,

Published by Steve Litchfield at 10:25 UTC, October 25th

Section: Articles
Categories: Comment
Platforms: Series 60, UIQ, General