If mobile-to-cloud sync is big in 2010, it's game over for Microsoft

Sync will define connected tech products released or updated in 2010 and the few years that follow. Tech companies that get sync right will set the agenda for the delivery of content and services. Right now, Amazon, Apple and Google are sync leaders. Microsoft is a player but competing in the wrong game.

In a March 2008 blog post, I asserted that "synchronization is the natural killer application for the connected world." I also warned that "should Google get synchronization right before Microsoft, it would be game over. Google would be able to extend the relevancy of the Web platform back to the desktop on its terms -- think invading army -- and across many devices or services." It's game over now, and Microsoft has lent Google a helping hand in self-destruction.

Google gets Sync Right

In last week's post, "10 things Microsoft did wrong in 2010," I faulted the company for licensing ActiveSync to Google -- in February. Immediately, Google used ActiveSync for e-mail, calendar and contact synchronization from its cloud services to iPhone and Windows Mobile handsets. Google also used the technology to provide Exchange Server sync with Google Apps, so that businesses could use the hosted service instead of Outlook.

Sync is quickly defining Google's mobile handset and mobile cloud strategies. In using Android-based handsets, I've found Google push sync to be exceptionally fast and functional -- and extensible. For example, Facebook sync and notifications are a marvel on the T-Mobile MyTouch compared to Apple iPhone. Google is quickly rolling out real-time notifications and sync to all its services and providing in Android and Chrome means for developers to easily tap into these functionalities.

It's not a question of if but when Google will use sync services in conjunction with mobile phone location services to provide better real-time search, such as sale prices at nearby stores or barcode scannable coupons. The pieces already are in place. Last month, my daughter forgot to bring a $20-off coupon to Sephora. But she had it in Gmail on her Android-based Motorola CLIQ. The store simply scanned the barcode from the phone screen. But what if she had been able to subscribe to an Android phone location-based Sephora service that sent a notification and barcode coupon when in proximity to the store? Sync is more than just about moving calendars, contacts and e-mail between mobile devices, clouds services and computers.

Sync is the elixir for ebooks, too. It's the magic behind Amazon's Whispernet and Whispersync services that delivers ebooks to iPhone, Kindle or PC -- and marks where the reading last stopped. Amazon and Google sync services share something fundamentally important in common: Device to cloud; no PC required. Barnes & Nobles' Nook ebook reader is the same, and it runs Google's Android.

Longhorn short on Sync

For Microsoft, the most natural place for sync is the operating system. During Professional Developers Conference 2003, Microsoft product managers touted a new synchronization layer coming with Windows Longhorn. But Microsoft dumped sync with many other features during 2004 and 2005. OS synchronization could have nipped the Google and cloud services problems in the bud. Sync should have been the feature pulling computational and informational relevance back to the PC operating system. Instead, sync will shift computational and informational relevance to mobile devices and cloud-based services.

Sure, Microsoft has several different sync services and strategies, and some of the technologies, like Zune 4.0 and Zune HD, work well. Windows Live SkyDrive and Windows Live Sync are promising sync services, but they're too PC-centric too late. Amazon and Google have got better device sync, and Google is a looming Microsoft competitor.

Then there is Apple, which offered sync as part of Mac OS years ago but perfected the mechanism through iTunes. Apple's media software is a strange sync engine, for all the well it works. What business would want to use iTunes as sync engine for calendars or contacts? But iTunes sync works exceptionally well, such that it recalls where the user stopped watching that movie on Apple TV, iPhone, iPod, Mac or Windows PC and resumes at the right place. Apple's sync consistency and quality are exceptional.

MobileMe takes Apple sync to the device and cloud, where it belongs. Push address book, calendar and e-mail sync works surprisingly well. I've never had a problem with it on any iPhone. Apple's push notification service is a sync workaround that is acceptable, even if deficient. Better: The more real-time sync available with widgets residing on some handsets' homescreens. My daughter has this with her CLIQ, as I have with some Nokia touchscreen handsets, such as the N97.

What If

Sync is the glue binding together cloud services and mobile devices -- and it will reach mature delivery in 2010. Amazon gets it. Apple gets it. Barnes & Noble gets it. Google gets it. Microsoft is getting it, but not fast enough. Amazon had a terrific holiday selling Kindle ebook readers, which could only be spoiled by the rumored Apple tablet. Sync will enable delivery of newspaper and magazine subscriptions in 2010, more real-time than what Amazon does today with Kindle.

  • If Google turns search and location-based GPS into a sync service...
  • If Apple offers TV subscriptions via iTunes for portable devices and Apple TV...
  • If Amazon can support more devices -- and include more content such as music and videos...
  • If Apple releases a versatile tablet with combined audio book, ebook, enews, music, podcast and video store...
  • If Android becomes the most widely deployed mobile operating system (by number of supporting hardware manufacturers)...
  • If Digital Newsstand partners Conde Nast, Hearst Corp., Meredith Corp., News Corp. and Time produce an ebook reader or cut content deals for other devices...

...Sync will be 2010's defining technology, even if not heralded by tech pundits.

Where is Microsoft's sync strategy? In too many ways, it's stalled. Microsoft sync is scattered across consumer products, although it's more vertically defined in the enterprise. But even enterprise advantages can't make up for what's missing: A cohesive mobile operating system, sync service and device strategy. Microsoft has mobile pieces in place, but it's a puzzle apart. Other companies are innovating in sync -- and delivering real and useful products now -- whereas Microsoft makes promises of something better to come.

The company to watch most closely is Google, which during the 2008-09 recession made strategic research investments and released new products or services that are defining. Apple is a sync leader, too. Microsoft helped Google -- and also Apple -- along by licensing ActiveSync. How strange is that?

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