Devil's Advocate: That synching feeling

PDAs, phones, PCs… it’s the simple things that are hard
Written by Martin Brampton, Contributor

PDAs, phones, PCs… it’s the simple things that are hard

Following his upgrade to a Nokia 3650 camera-phone Martin Brampton was feeling positive about next-generation functionality. So what's holding him back? Another week on, and I am happily using the Nokia 3650 that hastily replaced my stolen mobile. I remain very impressed but making full use of its capabilities reveals some old issues. However much we dress up software with appealing interfaces, we find apparently simple problems that fail to yield to simple solutions. Making computers accessible to everyone is laudable and I am all in favour of every attempt at demystification of IT. The PC and Mac revolution has done sterling work in making software an acceptable part of everyday life. Yet it has also led to some unrealistic expectations. One of these is the idea that if only software writers make sufficient effort, every problem can be made simple. Although I’m still amazed at the computing power I can now get into a shirt pocket, I have also been reminded of a classic problem that is not simply solved. One of the first things I tried to do with my new mobile is to install a list of my contacts and to keep it synchronised with my desktop PC. That should be simple enough these days, wouldn’t you think? Yet contradicting the expectation that proliferation of highly capable mobile devices would open up the market for synchronisation tools, the reality seems to be that the market has shrunk. I could find very little available, leaving me confined to the software provided with Nokia. That supports synchronisation with Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes or Lotus Organizer. A good start but there are many other PC programs that could be used to record contacts. My first effort was with Organizer and achieved some success as I already had a list of contacts in that form, and quickly copied it to the phone. Black Sheep Research doesn’t need the power of Lotus Notes, and my policy of avoiding market leaders discouraged me from using Outlook. Limitations quickly became apparent though. Most crippling was the fact that Organizer seems reluctant to offer much support for mobile phone numbers. Maybe it is linked with the slower uptake of the mobile in the US. Whatever the reason, slick handling of mobile phone numbers does seem to be a fundamental requirement for a contacts list used with a mobile. The Nokia was fine but Organizer was not. Despite my reservations, Outlook therefore won the day. I still refrain from using it for mail, but it is now the PC end of my diary and contacts list. The Nokia synchronisation actually works rather well in most respects, so I started tidying up and extending my list. This soon brought me up against a more fundamental problem. All simple contact programs are essentially a software version of the basic card index. Each entry has one card. Now anyone who has worked seriously on building contact software will know that this is conceptually inadequate to handle the real world problems. And mobile phones have exacerbated those problems. The trouble is that sometimes we really want to record information about a person and sometimes we are more interested in a place. Just giving them all separate index cards is not good enough. The people tend to live at the places, but not necessarily at just one place. They have a home place and a work place, or maybe several work places. Likewise, each place is likely to involve several people. What is more, in some instances we are interested primarily in a person and in others the role that they fulfil, such as a job title. Well, you need quite a sophisticated database with pretty slick software to cope adequately with these issues. They are only the real world characteristics of how we make contacts but there is no way to magically turn them into a simple problem. One day, perhaps mobile phones will have such sophisticated software that we will be able to record all kinds of connections. For the moment, I’m evolving ways to make do with my records in card index form. ** Martin Brampton is a director and founder of Black Sheep Research (www.black-sheep-research.co.uk ), an independent consultancy providing research, writing and speaking services on a wide range of business and technology subjects. Martin was previously a director at Bloor Research, and has worked with IT as a user and analyst for over 20 years. He can be contacted at silicon@black-sheep-research.co.uk. For past Devil's Advocate columns see the links below, or type 'Devil' into our search engine.
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