Apple gives Microsoft that synching feeling

New battle ground for the old rivals
Written by Joe Wilcox, Contributor

New battle ground for the old rivals

Apple Computer is refining a strategy for connecting cell phones and other portable devices to its Macintosh systems in an effort to boost sales. But a rival endeavour from Microsoft, expected to be unveiled early next year, could dim the company's hopes, say analysts. Apple is nearing the end of a long testing cycle for iSync, its software for synchronising information between Macs, Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, personal digital assistants or the company's iPod music player. The software, expected to be available early next year for an annual fee, lets consumers and business users input data once and replicate it to many different devices. That's why synchronisation software is shaping up as a key battleground for Apple and Microsoft. As consumers shift spending away from PCs to more portable devices, such as cell phones or digital music players, controlling the key element for synchronising data on these devices with computers is becoming increasingly important, say analysts. Although no projections for the value of the synchronisation software market are available, analysts said control of the market could be hugely profitable. "As end-user client devices proliferate, users may have an array of gadgets," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "Since most users will have the bulk of their data - both personal and business - on their PCs, controlling the synchronisation of that data will help determine the overall success of future devices and services." For Apple, synchronisation software could become an important hook that might persuade consumers or businesses to choose Macs over PCs. Apple has seen its share of the overall operating system market slide in recent years as Linux gains popularity. IDC estimates that the Mac OS' market share dropped to 3.1 per cent in 2001 from 4.6 per cent two years earlier. Windows, in contrast, has more than 90 per cent market share. "Certainly by 2005, possibly by the end of 2003, Linux will pass Mac OS as the number two operating environment," said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky. Apple hopes its iSync software can slow, or even reverse, its market share erosion. "I don't think people understand that how (the cell phone) works with the computer could be a reason for choosing a platform," said Phil Schiller, the Apple executive in charge of worldwide marketing. Analysts see Apple currently in the lead for such synchronisation services. "By controlling sync to devices, Apple is now the gatekeeper of a critical part of the technology needed to enable the future advances in mobile computing as we move into the post PC world," Gartenberg said. "This means that Apple can add support for devices like PocketPCs if it chooses and redefines the relationship with device vendors that want to be a part of the core OS sync experience." The big question mark for Apple is whether Microsoft intends to put its considerable resources behind its own synchronisation software effort. Microsoft is expected to announce, as early as March, during its Mobility Developer Conference, refinements to its synchronisation software, called ActiveSync. But it remains unclear when the company might increase marketing and development efforts behind its synchronisation strategy. A Microsoft representative said the company had no immediate plans to incorporate ActiveSync into its Windows operating system. Such a move is likely to mean that Microsoft would automatically control the vast majority of the sync software market. While Microsoft says it has not decided on its plan, analysts said that adding ActiveSync to Windows is a real possibility, should the market heat up. "Microsoft is considering making ActiveSync a part of the operating system, which would be consistent with the company's past strategy of bundling 'mature' technologies into Windows," Gartenberg said. The company's approach differs in several respects from Apple's. For one thing, the software titan has largely focused on synchronisation of corporate data, which has helped PocketPC steal some momentum from Palm in the personal digital assistant market. However, Microsoft's synchronisation approach uses proprietary protocols, which could slow its acceptance among third-party developers and corporate information services departments, analysts said. Right now, Apple's iSync supports several synchronisation protocols, but "SyncXML is the emerging standard," and the one Apple most aggressively supports, said Joe Hyashi, the company's director of applications worldwide product marketing. Joe Wilcox writes for News.com
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