"We want to give users the native experience, as they migrate from their Macs to their PCs to their iPhones and iPads and Android devices. Our application within those devices should behave as they would expect an app to behave for those devices." This from Karen White, the CEO of Syncplicity, which for the past three years has delivered an innovative file synchronization service for individuals and businesses.
White's explanation comes in response to a question from RWW about how best to approach the cross-platform question, especially as Syncplicity adds support for more platforms that aren't really devices. Case in point: Salesforce.com, which was added last week to the list of platforms that Syncplicity supports. White and her business partner, co-founder Leonard Chung, tells RWW their development philosophy for now is to create separate versions of their applications, each of which is tailored to the expectations of its platforms' users.
Chung tells RWW his company made the decision to go with native apps for the following reasons: First, HTML5 is still evolving, and may continue to do so for some time. Second, users want an experience that melds seamlessly with the platform they're using at the time. They don't want PC apps on their iPad. Third, they want high performance, which is usually only attainable by addressing the device's or the operating system's native libraries. Customers don't want to wait an eternity while they're uploading files to the cloud.
Fourth, though, is the obvious one: Syncplicity is one of those apps that needs direct access to the entire file system, not just the portion of the file system set aside for an HTML5 Web app to use.
Now, this decision might mean Syncplicity goes missing on what Chung calls "second-class devices." When pressed, he defines by process of deduction: anything that's not iOS or Android, whatever remains when you extract that 80% of the device market.
By making this choice - offering the Syncplicity app in platform-specific versions the way software firms have always done - does Syncplicity feel it's going against the rules or protocols of the companies that manage these platforms?
"We don't feel constrained, but we do feel those differences," CEO White responds. How you would go about accessing the functionality - especially the file system - on an Android system is fundamentally different than how one would do this for iOS. "I wouldn't call them constraints in terms of rules and regulations," she adds, "to say that each device has its own exclusive attributes, and in some cases, constraints that you have to work around. But what we're finding in mobile is that users want a robust experience, and they want to interact richly with their data from mobile devices - even more so than with the devices themselves. So our strategy with mobile is to use whatever attributes that device has, and to optimize the richest user experience that we can provide based on what resources are available."
It's the act of synchronization that throws users off. There are a number of cloud-based services (Windows Live SkyDrive comes to mind) whose usage model presents "the cloud" as a separate partition. You copy and paste files into that partition when you want to make them visible, then copy and paste them down into whatever other device you want to share them with. As the advertisements say, "It's that simple," but simplicity of concept does not always equate with ease of use.
The Syncplicity model (at least at its core) is more around pre-assigned replication. (Yes, for the archaeologists among us who are squinting at the above figure for clues, that's Windows XP.) You select policies for the folders that contain files, and the services that produce files, that you intend to be shared with other devices in your "virtual private cloud," as White calls it. Those policies are entered through a front-end console that is a Web app, and does use a browser.
But this isn't the environment you'll be using every day, all day long. What Syncplicity has historically relied upon is operating systems' willingness to allow integration. In that XP figure, you'll see green checkmarks have been added to the usual array of file icons. Those checkmarks indicate these files are being shared, and all devices with which they're being shared will see the most recent version. So you're storing them both locally and remotely.
This way, you're not actually changing the way you work just to stay in sync. The simple, one-click process becomes a simpler no-click process, something only an operating system can enable.
"We think that if you've set up a file hierarchy or structure on your Mac, you must like it. And if you set up another structure on your SharePoint server, well then, you must like that," explains CEO White. "We don't require that you reorganize all your files and folders into a new SaaS application that you then can leverage into a mobile device. We just think you should be able to say, 'Hey, this is all the stuff I care about...' This SharePoint server, this PC, this Mac, this Android device, these cloud apps - Google and Salesforce. We say, 'Tell us about them,' and now, voilà, they're in your virtual private cloud. Once we know about them, you don't have to upload your files to us manually, you don't have to reorganize your data structure."
But that's not exactly the case with tablets such as the iPad. It's not organized like a Mac, with a universally accessible file system. It has certain classes of files that it uses natively. So an app that synchronizes file system access with a tablet that doesn't use a regular file system, needs to not feel like a foreign country. It must present the appearance of nativity, as though these Microsoft Word documents (as shown in the figure) belonged here to begin with.
For Web apps such as Salesforce, Syncplicity must provide something in-between. This unique, but still intuitive, file management screen appears inside a Syncplicity department header inside Salesforce, for customers of Syncplicity's new Salesforce embedded app.
"All companies have some form of cloud management, and all companies are dissatisfied with it," proclaims White, "whether I'm mildly annoyed because of VPN restrictions and [policies], or because I'm not backed up when I'm off a public network. Those are old complaints; there are also new complaints coming about because people are working in the cloud every day - with Salesforce, Google, and others - and people are using these mobile devices every day and have greater expectations of synchronization and offline backup. So in addition to solving the old problems of on-premise file system servers that nobody has loved, file management systems that have worked the same way for years, we're adding a parallel set of nuisances because users are keeping their information on these file servers and also in the cloud.
"We don't think the convergence is going to be that everybody is going to move their data to one new place in the cloud," the CEO continues. "The convergence has to be around the data itself, and providing the user a rich experience, allowing them to do whatever they need to do with their files and folders, whatever device, cloud app, or file server they happen to be operating on at that moment in time. The smartphone can be the fourth or fifth device that person uses."