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The New OS Challenge: Data Integration and Synchronization

03 Jun

>Today’s OS challenge
In the past, operating systems had a limited function, synchronizing access to internal and external hardware, file systems, memory, processes, etc.

Nowadays, user’s demands far exceed these ‘simple’ requirements, expecting data integration and synchronization. People use different (portable) machines, applications and different (online) storage realms, and these all need to integrate in a customer-focused manner.

Examples: image manipulation, bookmarks, data exchange
For example, on Mac OS X images can be manipulated with all sorts of relatively cheap programs these days (e.g. Skitch, LittleSnapper, Acorn, Pixelmator, Picturesque, etc.) All these programs have a different focus and provide different functions, with some overlap. However, when you try combining the functions of these programs, you are facing a real challenge. What format do you use for data exchange? PNG is a good choice for one-way image manipulation, but then don’t try changing something in the middle of your process.

This challenge becomes even larger when you try exchanging vector images between multiple applications, like Keynote, Pages, NeoOffice, Novamind, Microsoft Office, etc. Both SVG and OpenDocument are formally standards, but they are currently far from practical for inter-application data exchange. On the Mac platform, EPS and PDF are typically the best bets. An established practical standard is lacking.

Another example is your bookmarks. How do you synchronize your bookmarks between Firefox, Safari, Opera and Internet Explorer? Each vendor starts to deploy his own web-based synchronization service (MobileMe, Opera Link, etc.) and there are some that go a bit further already (XMarks, Delicious) but we need one solution for all browsers that integrates with different operating systems.

Finally, notice how online data exchange services have started to emerge. For example Quicksnapper, Skitch.com, MobileMe, Flickr, YouTube, etc. These services make it easy to share data over the internet, but they are typically focused on one type of data (images or video, for example) and fail to integrate with different sorts of applications. Their focus is typically limited.

Dropbox is a positive exception here, providing a generic data exchange experience that is seamless across Mac OS X and Windows platforms, transparently working with all sorts of applications and providing limited history/backup/versioning support. However, optimally, applications should be adjusted so they recognize and support this platform.

And what if you want to view and edit your files on the fly from your mobile device, like an iPhone?

Network computer?
In the past, companies like Sun MicroSystems attempted to resolve these issues with a largely closed environment: the network computer, sporting a central server for sharing all applications and data. Although there are still (business) environments where this is an excellent solution, the majority of the customers requires more choice and an open system.

Operating system support
This is where an operating system like Mac OS X can make a big difference. OS X is already much appreciated for the system-wide services it provides, like spell checking, hyphenation, speech, etc. But these don’t go far enough.

For application interoperability, Apple should extend their vision, provide a platform and produce some guidelines. These should enable application developers to write interoperable programs that support tomorrow’s applications, collaboration and synchronization tools and data exchange methods, including versioning support.

This may require a strategic shift, as Apple is currently trying to make money off MobileMe, which is a closed and proprietary platform that has limited features and is based on an expensive yearly subscription model. Such a model is hardly suitable for large groups of customers that will look elsewhere for their data exchange requirements.

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