Solutions At Hand

Handhelds, smartphones, mobile technology and the digital lifestyle.

This weeks buzzword: Inter-operability.

Posted by Michael Brown on July 15, 2005

Inter-operability can be very simply defined as “plays well with others”. Once information is entered or stored in any digital system or media, it should be able to be read in any other system, right? After all, it’s digital now, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case; hence the need for the term inter-operability.

The most important aspect of inter-operability is the least tangible one; namely, software. Software is what really makes a computer go, kind of like how gas makes a car go. Software must be “compiled” for a particular type of computer, similar to needing gas for a car and diesel for a dump truck; different “stuff” for different “engines”. Software creates “files”, which are the means by way digital information is shared. So, to inter-operate with one another, both the handheld and the desktop must be able to understand the file they share.

Since handhelds are meant to synchronize with a desktop computer, they need to “play well” with your desktop’s Operating System and it’s relevant files. For example, all palmOne devices ship with Palm Desktop for Windows, which is a mirror of the information on your handheld, but in a Windows application. Similarly, business-oriented handhelds like the Tungsten and Treo lines ship with Microsoft Outlook synchronization conduits, allowing your PDA to “play” with Outlook’s files. Most palmOne handhelds ship with Documents to Go, which lets your handheld work with Microsoft Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, as well as text files and some other document types.

Inter-operability isn’t simply limited to the Windows Operating System and it’s applications. Palm OS inter-operates with other operating systems. Palm Desktop is available for the Mac platform, as is Apple’s bundled iSync solution. There is a product called “The Missing Sync” that adds additional support for Palm-Mac synchronization. Many third-party Palm applications have Mac desktop components. Palm handhelds inter-operate well with Linux desktop systems, through pilot-link conduits and other Palm-friendly means. There are a number of Linux applications that share information with Palm Powered handhelds and smartphones.

Inter-operability doesn’t end at the desktop. Many large companies have corporate e-mail, calendaring, and customer relations management/sales force automation software (CRM & SFA) that connect office staff to mobile workers. There are several companies that supply software that allows Palm handhelds and Treo smartphones to integrate/inter-operate with these corporate solutions. These products run on a server in your companies’ datacenter, or are “hosted” by service providers like Bell Mobility or Rogers Wireless for smaller businesses. These products are available for Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange/Outlook, Novell Groupwise, and other groupware solutions. There are also market-specific software like Top Producer and Agent Office, both of which are Palm inter-operable Real Estate software applications.

They key to inter-operability is the same for collaborating amongst people; a clear understanding of the information being shared. This is best achieved through the use of standards and extensible platforms. There are few technical reasons why electronic devices cannot inter-operate; usually it comes down to vendors choosing to support – or not support – particular platforms. Fortunately, Palm OS is the most widely supported mobile platform in existence today, which is why we have such a choice of software available to work with, both on the desktop or server, and on the handheld or smartphone itself.

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