2010 Technology of the year: Synchronization

Apple's iPad surely doesn't deserve the designation, although some other news sites or blogs are giving it. Instead, sync is my choice as technology of 2010. Sync by far is the year's most useful and widely beneficial technology. Sync wasn't invented this year, but the technology reached a crescendo of usefulness -- anytime, anywhere and on anything.

I first started writing about the importance of content synchronization in 2003, arguing that the utility belonged in the operating system. In January 2004, I blogged for JupiterResearch: "Controlling synchronization at the platform level would help Microsoft protect its Windows monopoly." Microsoft planned to integrate sync into Windows Longhorn, but later pulled the plug. Apple brought sync into Mac OS X with limited utility and later to iOS, where it is much more useful. Google trumped both companies, by taking sync somewhere even more useful: To the cloud. Android and the Chrome browser sync to Google datacenters and back to software, quite marvelously. But sync's reach and utility go much farther than these three companies-- from Amazon Kindle to Facebook and beyond.

In March 2008 Microsoft Watch post "Do IT Simply with Sync," I expressed the technology's importance, but many shortcomings, as then available: "Synchronization is the natural killer application for the connected world. People use multiple devices, software products and IP/Web services. Information spreads out across these devices, requiring unnecessary rekeying and duplication. Synchronization would solve these problems and make content more useful across devices or services."

Suddenly, Sync is Everywhere

Twenty-one months later, sync has become a huge utility. What once was about keeping contacts and calendars or even e-mail in sync among multiple PCs or other devices touches just about every product or service used on the go. For example, Amazon uses sync to keep Kindle users reading in the right place. When someone starts reading a book on Kindle ebook reader but then continues on a smartphone running the Kindle software, sync brings him or her to the last page read. Kindle sync came of age in 2010, as Amazon brought the software reader to most smartphone and desktop operating systems (a process that started in 2009).

Facebook sync deserves to be utility of the year, IMHO. In January, Facebook released a new version of its application for iPhone that added contact sync and push notifications. The technology later released for Android and other mobile operating systems. During initial setup, users can choose to sync information with the contacts in their phone's address book, all of their Facebook friends or none at all. Facebook sync helps keep contact information up to date. It's the perfect antidote to annoying Plaxo spam mails, which for me all but disappeared in 2010.

Synchronization is also a vital utility for hundreds of thousands of mobile applications. Using sync and so-called push technologies, Android and iOS check to make sure the newest applications are installed -- that is synced up -- on the smartphone. Sync also lets people recover apps or even the entire desktop. T-Mobile automatically syncs contacts to the cloud, which are resynchronized when the subscriber changes devices. Google uses sync connected to one account ID to keep bookmarks synced among Chrome browsers, say, on a PC and with Android smartphone. Sync also benefits Android phone users in other ways. For example, when I changed Nexus One phones this year, Google cloud sync restored all the settings (even desktop background) and applications to the new device.

What's different about sync as it evolves and extends to more services, software and devices is transparency -- you set it and forget it.

Five Sync Trendsetters

While sync is becoming more pervasive, five companies stand out for technologies and their usefulness: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. All five services share something in common: They use a single user e-mail as synchronization hub ID -- @amazon.com. @me.com, @facebook.com (or other e-mail address), @gmail.com and @live.com, respectively.

Facebook sync is perhaps the most interesting right now, seemingly because it is so quickly evolving. Facebook's new messaging service is one place to watch for rapid changes, particularly syncing up content between the cloud and mobile devices. Also, Facebook is becoming the default ID used to sign into other services, opening huge opportunities for extending sync benefits beyond the social network.

Apple sync is messiest, because there are two synchronization engines -- iSync/MobileMe (from device to the cloud) and iTunes (from device to PC). The two sync engines don't, well, sync up, and the latter is hugely unappealing to IT organizations. C`mon, what IT manager wants to sync corporate-issued iPads or iPhones with iTunes? That's not to say iTunes sync works poorly. It actually sets a standard for ease and effectiveness. But success has a price: Apple has gone too far down the iTunes sync path to easily change course, which is one of the major reasons there are two sync engines. However, the Mac App Store, which launches on January 6, could be catalyst driving unified sync.

Microsoft is the granddaddy of sync, and its progeny are competitors, like Apple and Google, that license ActiveSync. It's still the standard for syncing content with Microsoft Exchange. Microsoft is improving sync, and made some interesting strides in 2010. Among them: Windows Phone 7, which People Hub offers social sync across several services, including Facebook and Windows Live.

Google has removed the need for the PC in the sync equation. It's all done to the cloud. I expect sync to be the glue making Google services work even better together in 2011. I've already mentioned some of what Google has done, so I'll add just one thing: Google is the other company doing or looking to do interesting things with sync. Anytime, anywhere and on anything.

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