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Managing your mobile data sync

As users become more comfortable with cloud services, they need to be aware of who they are trusting with their data.

As consumers increasingly purchase sophisticated smartphones such as the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Droid, they are developing expectations for how these phones allow contacts, calendars, e-mail, and social networks to remain in sync across all their devices.

One of the big challenges is that users don't always maintain the same source of inputting data--they switch from browser to desktop application to smartphone as their data access and entry point, introducing many variables into the data chain. And data integrity will only get more complicated as more applications become browser-based and keep no local data storage.

Most enterprise users have a local store in addition to the cloud storage, something that I still find puzzling from the T-mobile Sidekick outage, where consumer data that should have been in multiple locations (or at least present on the device) was thought to be lost.

The most common sync services are not provided directly by the mobile operator. Generally this is a good thing, as the more you can dis-intermediate the carrier, the more control you have over your data. But because the sync services are provided by others--notably Microsoft, Google, and Apple--you end up locked-in to their data structures as well as whatever privacy and data management issues that might arise in relation to advertising or other usage of your information.

Today, you can fairly easily sync your mobile device with most common online e-mail and PIM services although the BlackBerry, Droid, and the iPhone differ in their approaches--or at least in the visibility of how they work. For example, you can sync with Gmail and other services on the iPhone, but it rather perversely requires the Microsoft ActiveSync protocol.

By controlling the address book, Google and Apple effectively lock-in users to their sync service, leaving the carriers and devices to be easily replaced (minus the cancellation charges.) The user would barely notice the difference, aside from the sticker on his phone that says AT&T or Verizon.

Mobile operators do not want to cede control of the address book to Google or Apple, but they are late to the game and do not yet have sync solutions of their own. As a result, they are scrambling to add this functionality, but building a sync solution that works with all different devices and email services is no easy task, thanks to the widespread problem of device fragmentation in the industry.

One option is to deploy a white label solution, like the open mobile cloud sync offered by Funambol. Funambol CEO Fabrizio Capobianco told me the company has been approached by many of the top mobile operators, with several of them looking to setup sync services for their customers. They all recognize the issue, and according to Capobianco can turn to Funambol as a way to quickly bring a high-quality solution to market.

With all the different players in mobile sync, users will begin to question who owns their data. Enterprise users, in particular, should have privacy concerns about trusting their data to someone else. In the case of Android users, there is a growing anti-Google sentiment, and if Google already owns your email, calendar, and search queries, do you really want them to own your phone contacts as well?