The most common devices for mobile connectivity are cell phones, pagers, and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). In this article, I introduce a basic technology common to most, if not all, of today's PDAs: desktop synchronization software. In the process, I define several terms and give some history behind the technology, so you might want to save this article for future reference.
Palm's family of PDAs (aka connected organizers) originated with the Pilot. Palm and third-party devices (e.g., Handspring's Visor) that use the Palm OS lead today's PDA market. Pocket PCs that use Windows CE software are a distant second in popularity. Neither Palm nor Microsoft invented the PDA; the concept has been around for a while. However, most of the early players, notably Apple Computer's late, lamented Newton, have fallen by the wayside.
Why did Palm succeed where others failed? In part because Palm products hit the right combination of features and price, but also because Palm was the first to develop and capitalize on these little marvels' capability to synchronize data—including contacts, appointments, notes, and recurring tasks—with a desktop PC. In effect, you can carry the equivalent of your Rolodex, calendar, and notebook with you wherever you go and eliminate the need to rerecord on your PC the information you enter on your PDA and vice versa.
You can also synchronize email between a PDA and a desktop PC, which lets you review messages on the run. Synchronization is also the primary mechanism for installing add-on software on PDAs. Building your knowledge about synchronization software is crucial if you want to make the most of your PDA.
PDA users and their systems administrators are likely to encounter three primary synchronization products: Palm's HotSync, Microsoft ActiveSync, and Pumatech's Intellisync. This list is by no means all-inclusive—more products appear all the time. Palm's PDAs and Microsoft's Pocket PCs include the vendor's synchronization software. Some devices also ship with Intellisync, which PDA users frequently add on to solve compatibility problems.
Palm initially designed HotSync to work with Palm Desktop, Palm's personal information manager (PIM). However, Palm quickly realized that supporting third-party desktop PIMs was crucial to convincing enterprises to accept the Pilot and its successor devices. To that end, Palm came up with conduits, a standard technology for translating data between Palm OS-based PDAs and various PIMs. Today, Palm's connected organizers work well out-of-the-box with most desktop PIMs, including Microsoft Outlook.
Palm designed HotSync's setup software for local installation from a CD-ROM drive, but you can also perform a network installation from a network share. For local setup, you need only to put the CD-ROM in the drive. For a network installation, you need to copy the CD-ROM's contents to a shared directory and start autorun.exe from that directory. Chapura's PocketMirror, the conduit for Outlook, is installed automatically if the installation process detects Outlook.
Different Palm PDA models use slightly different versions of the software. The Palm VII series, for example, has additional components that support the devices' built-in wireless modems. To deal with the variety of setups PDA users will need, you should provide a directory on the share for each type of PDA your organization uses.
For enterprise users and network administrators, Palm offers Network HotSync, an application that lets users synchronize their organizers across a network connection. The application still synchronizes only between users' Palm devices and users' desktop PCs but allows this synchronization across a LAN. For more information about Network HotSync, go to Palm's Support site at http://www.palm.com/support, then browse the Downloads page.
Palm also offers HotSync Server, a server-based application that includes a conduit for Microsoft Exchange Server, which lets you synchronize multiple PDAs from one server. (Conduits for Lotus Notes and Actual Software's MultiMail Professional are on the way.) HotSync Server supports synchronization with a serial cradle, a wired or wireless modem, and standard RJ-45 cabling and Palm's Ethernet Cradle to connect through the corporate LAN. For more information about HotSync Server, browse http://www.palm.com/enterprise. The Palm Escalation Support plan provides options for 24 x 7 support, on-demand hardware replacement, and technical training. For more information about support for use of Palm technologies in the enterprise, choose the Enterprise Support option from Palm's Support site.
In day-to-day use, I've found HotSync to be almost bulletproof. The only problems I've encountered with the product result from HotSync's methods for mapping fields from the PDA's built-in databases to fields on the desktop PIM. These problems are usually minor and inconsequential. For example, the mapping process might change delimiters (e.g., quotation marks) in names. In some cases, a PDA's space limitations might cause HotSync to truncate long notes. When these mapping problems occur, you'll see error messages and you need to check the HotSync Log, which Figure 1 shows. Check Palm's Support site for bug fixes and upgrades.
Microsoft's approach to synchronization started with H/PC Explorer, which was basically a Windows Explorer add-on that gave desktop users access to files and data on Windows CE 1.0-based handheld PCs (H/PCs). H/PC Explorer evolved into Windows CE Services for Windows CE 2.0 and Windows CE 2.1, then into ActiveSync for Windows CE 2.2 and Windows CE 3.x devices.
Like HotSync, ActiveSync synchronizes data between desktop applications and Pocket PCs or other Windows CE-based PDAs. However, ActiveSync synchronizes only with Outlook (and the older Schedule+). Figure 2 shows a successful Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks synchronization with ActiveSync 3.1. Required hardware depends on the device in question: You can use serial ports, the default for older devices; USB ports for newer devices; infrared ports; modems for dial-up access; or Ethernet PC-cards and CompactFlash cards for access over the corporate LAN.
Microsoft designed ActiveSync for local installation from a CD-ROM. However, Microsoft also supports a scripted silent setup that administrators can use with Systems Management Server (SMS) to automate distribution of ActiveSync throughout their organizations. Microsoft documents this capability and other mobile device user-support options in white papers you can access from Microsoft's Mobile Devices in the Enterprise Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/mobile/enterprise.
Microsoft doesn't provide a server-side synchronization product comparable to HotSync Server. The company relies on third-party developers and solution providers to extend the enterprise features of its Pocket PCs and other mobile devices. For more information about these partnerships, browse the Mobile Devices in the Enterprise Web site.
In my experience, ActiveSync is almost as reliable as HotSync. Occasionally, however, a user's PDA will refuse to synchronize with its host PC. You can usually solve this problem by rebooting the PDA and, if necessary, restarting Windows on the host PC. For more information about using ActiveSync to synchronize with Outlook, see Tony Redmond, The Well-Connected Pocket PC, February 2001.
If your company uses Pocket PCs and a different PIM or groupware application than Outlook, your users will need a third-party add-on to provide synchronization. Of such products, Intellisync is the most popular. Intellisync runs on both Palm and Windows CE platforms and synchronizes with a range of PIMs and enterprise email and groupware products, including various versions of Outlook, Schedule+, and Exchange Server; Symantec's ACT!; Lotus Organizer and Lotus Notes; Novell's GroupWise; Interact Commerce's SalesLogix; and Palm Desktop Software.
Intellisync's power lies in its flexibility. The product lets the user select different desktop software with which to synchronize each of the PDAs' built-in databases. For example, you can synchronize contacts with ACT!, the calendar with Outlook, and email with Lotus Notes. Intellisync also lets the user modify how desktop application fields map to the PDA, a feature that both HotSync and ActiveSync lack.
The only problem I've encountered with Intellisync involved synchronizing email with Lotus Notes. This problem occurred because the Lotus Notes administrator where I worked used a custom database template with which Intellisync wasn't compatible. I worked around the problem by using the standard template (StdR46Mail for Lotus Notes 4.6 and StdR45Mail for Lotus Notes 4.5) to create an empty database with which Intellisync could synchronize. I then copied messages from the custom-template-created database into the new database. You can find more information about the process I used to solve my problem at the Support site at Pumatech's Web site (http://www.pumatech.com).
For enterprise users, Pumatech offers Intellisync Gold, whose licensing program lets an organization mix and match various versions of the product. The Enterprise Intellisync Mobile Management Edition offers additional administrative tools. Intellisync Anywhere supports wireless or wired LAN synchronization in versions for Lotus Domino and Exchange Server. For more information about these products, browse Pumatech's Web site.
I've barely scratched the surface of the many synchronization options available to PDA users in the enterprise; ActiveSync, HotSync, and Intellisync each offer customization options that this article doesn't mention. I'll further explore the topic of PDA synchronization in future columns.
Meanwhile, I'd like to hear from you. What problems do you face integrating mobile and wireless technologies into your organization?