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SyncML Applications

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SyncML can enable numerous applications that require data to be synchronized among various devices. This chapter takes a closer look at a few applications and explains how SyncML is beneficial for the different entities that use it.
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SyncML® can enable numerous applications that require data to be synchronized among various devices. The applications range from managing personal information, such as contacts, calendars, and email, to managing enterprise information, such as inventory data. The applications must support diverse devices that connect using different networks. In addition, the applications have varying reliability, performance, and security needs. Authoring such applications and making them interoperable is a difficult task. This chapter takes a closer look at a few applications and explains how SyncML is beneficial for the different entities that use it.

Before considering specific applications, it is useful to note certain characteristics of many common data synchronization applications. Unlike applications that primarily reside and operate on one computer, many data synchronization applications are partitioned between Client and Server parts. These two parts of the application work together to provide the overall user experience. A Web browser and a Web server also work together to provide an overall user experience. The interaction between the parts of a data synchronization application, however, is more coordinated and semantically coupled than the more ad hoc interactions between a Web browser and a Web server. For example, the address book on a personal handheld device and its PC counterpart are more aware of each other and work in a more tightly coordinated fashion than, say, an MP3 player on a mobile phone and a MP3 download Web server.

Figure 3-1 shows a logical view of mobile data synchronization applications partitioned between clients and servers. Client parts often manage user interaction, keep a record of changes made to application data, and interact with local datastores. Sometimes, the client part uniquely corresponds to one server part as shown in Application 1. An example of this is the address book application of a personal handheld device and its PC counterpart. Sometimes multiple client parts logically correspond to one server part as in Application 2. An example of such an association is found in the family Web calendar example illustrated later in this chapter. The different client parts of the same application may reside on different devices, as in the Web calendar application. Those different parts can use various means of wired and wireless communication.

03fig01.gifFigure 3-1. A logical view of mobile data synchronization applications showing the partitioning between client and server parts and various external entities that such applications may interact with, such as a user, a datastore, and a remote service.

The Server parts of applications interact primarily with back-end datastores and also detect and reconcile conflicting updates. The Server part sometimes also tracks changes made to back-end datastores. The Server part can sometimes interact with a user, as shown in Application 1. For example, the Server part of the address book application may reside on a PC, where a user may directly update address book entries. The Server part, as shown in Application 2, can sometimes implement application-specific logic, resulting in interaction with remote datastores, processes, or services. An instance of such behavior is found in the family Web calendar example below. Depending on application semantics, a Server part may synchronize a single Client datastore with multiple back-end datastores, as shown in Application 3. An instance of such behavior is found in the visiting nurse scenario below. Synchronization Servers typically host the Server parts of many applications. Therefore, pieces of logic common to many applications, such as detection and resolution of certain conflicts, are sometimes factored into a sync server engine. For the purposes of this discussion, it suffices to assume that the Server parts subsume functionality often factored into sync engines.

It is natural to ponder at this point what role SyncML plays in enabling these partitioned data synchronization applications. After all, many legacy data synchronization applications, such as Lotus Notes®, are built in a tightly coupled, partitioned fashion. SyncML enables uniform logical communication of data and changes made to data between the Client and Server parts of applications. As a result, the Client and Server parts of applications can be built relatively independently.

SyncML is an enabler for many mass-market applications, such as calendars, email, data backup, and picture galleries. SyncML can also be used for many enterprise applications, such as inventory management, claims processing, and procurement. The two examples below elaborate on the many common applications used today. The applications, however, illustrate the various benefits of SyncML in enabling complete data synchronization solutions. The examples we describe are:

  • A consumer example: “Coordinating a busy family”

  • An enterprise example: “Supporting Roving Nightingales”

Coordinating a Busy Family

The Stetsons are a family of four. David, the father, is a sales professional. He often visits clients out of the office. Mary, the mother, works from home. She processes claims for an insurance company. Susan, the sixteen-year old daughter, attends high school. She is also an aspiring ballerina. Mark, the seventeen-year old son, also attends high school. He is an aspiring soccer player. While all of them are busy with their work and activities, they remain a close-knit family. They often schedule activities that involve two or more family members. Such activities include family dinners, going together to the theater, cheering at Mark's soccer games, and attending Susan's ballet performances. The family uses a Web-based calendar service provided by a service provider to schedule several family activities.

Application Setting

Figure 3-2 shows the setting for the Web-based family calendar management application. Different family members use the Client parts of the same calendar application implemented on different devices. Mary uses her home PC to view and make entries in the family calendar. She synchronizes her calendar with the Server's calendar when she dials in to the network. Mark uses a PDA. He uses the PDA's calendar to view his schedule and make changes, and occasionally synchronizes with the Server using the PDA's wireless dial-up connection. David and Susan both use a mobile phone. They operate in the same mode as Mary and Mark but with two key distinctions. They do not have to use dial-up, as the mobile phones are mostly connected. They also have the additional capability of being alerted by the Server's calendar. David also uses a laptop version of the family calendar application.

03fig02.jpgFigure 3-2. The setting for a Web-based family calendar management application.

The laptop and the PC versions of the application additionally allow management of application preferences using a Web browser. Clearly, although the different Client calendars operate on the same data, the individual user experience may be different. The user interfaces are different, the manners of connection are different, and the application features are different. The Web version of the family calendar application runs on a server-class machine operated by a service provider. The service provider supports multiple underlying communication protocols. The Server calendar application implements most of the application logic discussed below. The family calendar also occasionally “consults” David's work calendar before scheduling personal appointments during work hours. David's company values work-life balance tremendously and has allowed limited access to his business calendar from his family calendar via a Web service interface.

Application Logic

The family calendar application has certain associated logic and semantics. The “rules” by which the application is guided include the following:

  • Family events may include only some and not necessarily all members of the family.

  • Events with overlapping times can be scheduled, provided that both events do not include the same family member.

  • Scheduling conflicts are resolved by the Server calendar application using configurable policies, such as priorities of meeting types (e.g. ballet performances have priority over lunches) or priorities of meeting originator, (e.g. events scheduled by Mary have priority over ones scheduled by David).

  • Certain events can be marked urgent. When an event is marked urgent, other family members are alerted to synchronize (in cases where they have Client devices that can be alerted), thus becoming aware of the urgent event.

  • When family events are scheduled during normal work hours, the Server's calendar must request clearance from David's business calendar.

Clearly, a family calendar can have associated rules that are simpler or more complex than the above. The rules above are only illustrative.

Usage Instances

The following explores a few usage instances of this application and their possible realizations using different Client and Server application parts and SyncML as the underlying synchronization protocol.

Mary schedules a family dinner

Mary opens up the family calendar application on her PC. She enters a family dinner event in the calendar from 6:30 PM to 9:30 PM on the coming Friday. She then dials in to do some online shopping. The PC calendar application detects a connection and initiates a SyncML synchronization session with the Server calendar using the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP). The Server calendar application accepts Mary's new entry, as it generates no conflict based on the rules above. Later, David, Susan, and Mark synchronize with the Server calendar and the calendars on their respective devices get updated with Mary's new entry.

Mark reschedules a soccer date

Mark just learned that his soccer game got moved from 3 PM Friday to 4 PM Thursday. David was scheduled to attend the game, taking off from work early on Friday. Mark updates the soccer game entry on his PDA application, marks it urgent for David to take notice, and synchronizes. The PDA application uses a SyncML Client to synchronize, using HTTP over a wireless dial-up connection. The Server calendar application receives the update and determines to check David's business calendar. It checks the business calendar1 and finds that David is available during the desired time. The Server calendar accepts Mark's change. Since Mark designated the update as urgent, the Server calendar uses the SyncML Server-alerted synchronization and alerts David to synchronize using the WAP Push [WPU01] feature on his mobile phone. David synchronizes upon the alert, becomes aware of the change, and is able to attend his son's soccer game.

Mary chooses ballet over lunch

Susan wants Mary to be present during her final rehearsal for an upcoming ballet performance. Susan therefore makes a new entry in the calendar application on her mobile phone, indicating the event from noon to 1:30 PM Wednesday. She then synchronizes with the Server calendar. Her mobile phone calendar application uses SyncML with the underlying WAP transport protocol. The Server calendar accepts Susan's entry.

David and Mary sometimes get together for lunch during workdays. Unaware of Susan's new entry, Mary makes a new entry in the PC calendar application for lunch with David on Wednesday. When she synchronizes the PC calendar, the Server calendar application detects a conflict and, using a set of conflict resolution rules, resolves the conflict in favor of the ballet performance instead of the lunch appointment. The result of the conflict resolution is communicated in the same synchronization session. The PC calendar application processes the status message and indicates the ballet appointment in Mary's PC calendar. The application also chooses to communicate the conflict and its disposition to Mary, using a dialog box or other means.

The Benefits of SyncML

The use of SyncML to enable the above applications affords a number of benefits. We discuss the benefits from the perspective of the different parties involved in the realization and use of the application.

The consumer perspective

Imagine how you would feel if the hammer you have determines the nails you could use. Unfortunately, without SyncML, that is more or less an accurate characterization of mobile applications that require data synchronization. SyncML provides the user with the freedom to choose devices and service providers relatively independently of each other. Different members of the Stetson family use different devices according to their preference. The users are not compelled to use one particular device because a service provider only interoperates with that device. The user can also choose to change devices at some future time.

Consider a few examples of consumer flexibility. Mark may choose to use a mobile phone instead of a PDA if he feels the need for more spontaneous connectivity. SyncML also allows the Stetson family to choose service providers. In the future, if a different family calendar service provider offers a feature that they like, such as selective viewing of calendar entries to enable organization of surprise birthday parties, the Stetsons are free to switch to that service provider without having to buy a set of new devices. If another service provider offers a shared family picture gallery, the Stetsons are free to add that service provider as well. SyncML enables the user to break free from artificial and cumbersome restrictions imposed by proprietary synchronization technology.

The device manufacturer perspective

For a company selling nails it is important that any hammer be able to drive those nails. If the nails can only be driven by one kind of hammer, that severely restricts the market for the nails. Similarly, for the manufacturer of David's mobile phone, it is important that the applications on the phone interoperate with the Server counterparts provided by various service providers. For the calendar application, the device manufacturer (or the application developer for a PC or PDA) can focus on user interaction and minimal required logic, such as keeping a record of local changes. The SyncML software on the device can handle the remaining mechanics of data synchronization by using standard data formats such as vCard [VCARD21], the SyncML Representation Protocol, the SyncML Synchronization Protocol, and HTTP or WSP [WSP01] transport protocols. Since the SyncML software on the device will interoperate with the corresponding SyncML software on the Server, the application on the device can work with applications on diverse Servers.

This is not necessarily true if there is a high level of semantic coupling between Client and Server application parts. In the family calendar application, most of the application logic is implemented on the Server. The Client part of the application is purposely generic and simple, enabling the Client application to work with diverse Servers. Having a common synchronization stack and simpler Client applications also reduces memory requirements on mobile devices.

The service provider perspective

For a company selling hammers it is important that their hammers be able to drive any nail. Similarly, it is important for service provider applications to interoperate with any device. By using the SyncML Synchronization Protocol underneath, the service provider's application can work with SyncML compliant applications on diverse Client devices. This enables broader market reach and penetration, driving revenue for the service provider.

The service provider can focus primarily on the application logic and semantics of data rather than trying to offer multiple synchronization protocols to suit the needs of many Clients. Using the specified SyncML transport bindings, the service provider can support Clients accessing the application via multiple transport protocols. The Stetsons use HTTP and WSP protocols from different devices. The service provider is also able to exploit certain characteristics of mobile devices and associated transport protocols by using additional features of SyncML, such as Server-alerted synchronization. The Server-alerted synchronization capability allows David to be quickly aware of the rescheduling of Mark's soccer game.

SyncML affords many advantages to the service provider. A family calendar application that correlates with the business calendar of a family member is much more valuable than one that cannot. Such functionality is orthogonal to SyncML and can be freely implemented by service providers.

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