Sync: Why is it Still Not Solved?

The current Internet era is characterized by multiple devices, including mobile phones, tablets, Internet TVs, netbooks, laptops, and of course the good old PC. One of the key services needed in this multi-device online world is reliable synchronization. Yet faulty or not-quite-optimal sync is one of the problems I experience the most these days.

Just before I started writing this, I was attempting to sync data from the online note-taking app Evernote. I had made some notes on my iPad Evernote app while in a cafe, where I didn’t have Internet connectivity (I’m a premium subscriber to Evernote, so I have offline access to my data). When I attempted to sync up that content to my Evernote desktop app in my home office, it didn’t immediately update. I refreshed… then again… no sync. Perplexed, I moved onto another activity and then checked again 5 minutes later. By then the changes had synced up, but the delay was disconcerting.

Another use case where sync is needed is using the same service across different apps. For example last night I was trying to use Facebook chat on my iPad, using a third party client. I’ve been testing out a couple of iPad apps for Facebook chat, the third party Facebook app for iPad called Friendly and the multi-service iPad chat app imo.im. I like imo.im because it allows me to be logged into Skype and Facebook chat at the same time (it also offers access to other leading IM programs, such as Yahoo! Messenger).

However last night I could not get a friend to show as ‘online’ in imo.im, despite having been chatting with that person moments before using Facebook on my PC. After struggling with this for 5 or so minutes, I switched to Friendly and managed to re-establish contact with my bemused friend. That may’ve been a bug in imo.im, but regardless it was another example of things not syncing as they should.

How Syncing Across Devices Works

Syncing usually involves using the Internet as the central ‘hub’ – with apps and/or devices being ‘spokes’ that connect to the hub. Evernote’s approach is fairly typical:

All of your notes (unless stored in a local — that is, not synchronized — notebook) are synchronized to Evernote on the Web. Evernote’s servers house a copy of all synced notes because all of the Evernote client applications, both mobile and desktop, connect to Evernote on the web to get the latest version of the notes for each user.

Evernote’s service and software applications are arranged in what’s called a “hub-and-spoke” configuration. This means that every single sync operation that takes place will involve Evernote on the web (the “hub”). For instance, if you initiate a sync from Evernote on your desktop computer, any new or updated content will be uploaded to Evernote on the Web so they’ll be ready to be downloaded when any of your other devices initiate a subsequent sync.

Specialist Sync Services

So far we’ve been talking about sync as a feature of web services, but there are also specialist sync services. Dropbox is probably the most high profile in the consumer market, but another is Sharpcast, which ReadWriteWeb named as our Most Promising Company of 2006.

We chose Sharpcast back in 2006 because it was “solving a big problem (syncing data across Web, desktop and other devices) and also is an integral part of many different trends that will be popular in 2007 and beyond – mobile, rich media, a world of multiple devices, and more.”

While we were right about the trend towards multiple Web devices – and that was before the iPhone was unveiled in January 2007 – things haven’t quite panned out for Sharpcast. It’s not because syncing became unnecessary. In fact it’s a must-have feature in all apps that work across devices, particularly those with an offline component such as Evernote and Instapaper. Sharpcast had an opportunity to establish itself as the sync glue for other web apps, but it didn’t manage to pull that off. Instead, the likes of Evernote and Instapaper built their own sync solutions.

Sharpcast is still plugging away, but now it competes with Dropbox and others as primarily an online storage service. Sync is one of the main features, but it’s no longer enough on its own.

Sync Remains a Problem

Evernote is one of my favorite apps (here’s an interview I conducted last year, which outlines how the product was created) and most of the time the sync works well on it. But syncing in this day and age should be completely hidden from the user. I notice some kind of sync issue with Evernote every week or two. It still has work to do.

More generally, I am constantly coming across issues where things don’t sync up properly between devices. Skype has probably been the worst offender for me over the years – for example, adding someone as a Skype contact on one computer and then not seeing that person display when you log into another computer. To this day, I continue to come across that ‘bug.’

What have been your experiences of sync? More importantly, have you come across any promising new sync solutions?

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