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Apple releases iSync beta

update The Mac maker's latest "i" application can be used to synchronize contact and calendar data with Palm handhelds, the iPod music player, and a number of Bluetooth-enabled cell phones.

update Apple Computer released this week a beta, or testing version, of iSync, the company's latest "i" application.

Consumers can use the software to synchronize contact and calendar data with Palm handhelds, Apple's iPod music player, and a select number of Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, such as the Sony Ericsson T68i. The software also works with .Mac, Apple's suite of online Web services. On Friday, Apple extended an important deadline for people to convert their older iTools accounts to the newer .Mac.

With iSync, Apple ushers in the first practical application for Bluetooth, a short-range radio technology for connecting peripherals, handhelds, cell phones and other devices to personal computers. Bluetooth, which is complimentary to 802.11b wireless networking, or "Wi-Fi," has offered the promise of releasing consumers from all the wires used to connect peripherals or devices to their computers. But the technology has been slow to take off. Apple's support and that of Microsoft last week could help change that.

Bluetooth is expected to have its breakthrough year in 2003, according to IDC. Bluetooth semiconductor market would grow to $2.6 billion in 2006 from $76.6 million last year, the market research firm predicted. Consumers and businesses would purchase 560 million Bluetooth-enabled devices by 2005, market researcher Gartner projected.

Vital to spurring Bluetooth adoption is the release of software applications that make use of the technology. In August, Apple beat Microsoft to market with support for the wireless technology. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company included Bluetooth in the latest release of Mac OS X, version 10.2, also known as Jaguar. On Thursday, Microsoft released to manufacturers a Bluetooth update for Windows XP. The Redmond, Wash.-based company expects the update to appear on new PCs within three to six months.

Still, iSync is a fledgling effort on the Bluetooth front. Currently, the software supports only four Bluetooth-enabled cell phones: The Sony Ericsson T68i, T68, T39 and R520. Apple also does not yet offer Bluetooth hardware with its computers. Consumers must purchase separate Bluetooth hardware, such as the D-Link DWB-120M adapter.

The beta also limits some of the Bluetooth functionality. When syncing with a T68i cell phone, for example, iSync does not let the user choose which contacts to transfer. All must be synchronized. More than 500 contacts could fill up the available storage space on the T68i.

Clifford Stevens, a Washington, D.C.-metropolitan area based Mac user, said synchronization works great on a Palm-compatible Visor handheld, but the software "is clearly beta in terms of features. The categories for addresses in your Palm don't transfer to the address book application."

The Palm function also has other limitations, such as requiring Palm's own software be installed to use iSync.

"With the Palm, you have to press the Hot Sync button on the (handheld's) cradle," Stevens said. "You can't sync by pressing the Palm icon in the iSync application. I thought the point of iSync was to replace the pain of current syncing technology with the usual plug-and-play, easy and elegant Apple solution."

Jeff Cabral, a Mac user from Los Angeles, said he is excited about iSync, but acknowledged he doesn't yet have all the gear necessary to make the most of the software.

"It is promising as I have already synced my address book information to my (.Mac account) all with just a simple click of the button--and a very cool looking button at that," he said. "Now all I have to do is find the right products to start my digital hub and away I go."

Apple is expected to increase its Bluetooth support during the coming months, much the same way it did with Wi-Fi. The company added support for the wireless technology to Mac OS well more than a year before Microsoft added Wi-Fi to Windows. Apple also offers Wi-Fi capabilities on all its computers and ships an 802.11b wireless base station known as AirPort. Microsoft announced its first Wi-Fi base station earlier this month.

Services connection
Release of iSync also rounds out Apple's current stable of "i" applications, as the company continues to push the Mac as a hub for digital devices and begins a tentative move into Web services. Earlier this month, Apple released iCal, a desktop and online calendaring tool. Both products run only on Jaguar and tie to additional Web services delivered through .Mac.

In July, Apple eliminated its free iTools suite of Web services and replaced them with .Mac. The 2.5 million iTools subscribers have until Oct. 14 to sign up for a .Mac at a reduced rate of $49 for the first year. The service otherwise costs $99 a year. Earlier this month, Apple revealed only about 100,000 people had signed up for .Mac.

While some customers have complained about the switch to paid services, analysts say consumers are increasingly likely to go for them. For example, according to an Online Publishers Association and ComScore Media Metrix study, consumer spending for online content, mainly in the form of subscriptions, rose 155 percent during the first quarter over the same period last year.

Microsoft, too, sees more potential in paid services. The company next month is expected to release MSN 8, which will offer new services but only to paying customers.

Besides iSync and iCal, Apple's iPhoto also has a Web-services component for ordering picture books or individual images online. Jaguar's Sherlock 3 feature also offers access to purchasing movie tickets and other commodities online.

"All these iApps, all of them are designed to do one thing well, and they do, but it is when they begin to combine, that the synergy reveals itself, and you think how cool that is," said Charles Jade, a Mac user and fiction writer from Cupertino, Calif. "Combine iPhoto, which manages your digital pictures, with iDisk, online storage and add .Mac functionality Web site making, and suddenly you are putting slick little albums up on the Web in no time."

Other Mac users see hope iSync and its siblings also will help boost Apple's "switchers" campaign, which seeks to woo PC users to Macs.

"The release of iSync is a further entrenchment and product of the digital hub strategy initiated by Apple a couple of years ago," said Jonathan Henry, a student and Mac user from Oklahoma City. "If it performs the way Apple demonstrated last July, it could open the door and provide even more incentive for consumers and professionals to become a product of the 'switch' campaign."