Visto Interview - An OTA Sync That Works?

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Never trust Symbian to sync your info correctly? Well, Visto have managed to crack it, and not only that, they do it over GPRS for a few megabytes a month. Ewan caught up with Steve Maynard to find out more...

Steve Maynard, VistoSitting on a beachfront terrace, with an ice-cold orange juice on the table, the warm sun beating down on you, and the lapping waves just at the edge of your hearing is a lovely way to spend late February. In the back of my mind, though, is the idea that I’m going to need to do some of that reporting stuff so Rafe signs my expenses claim. Luckily, I’m sitting with Steve Maynard from Visto, who’s Over the Air synchronising solution looks fast, and more importantly, looks like it actually works.

"Visto enables access to your emails, contacts and calendar data, all from your mobile handset," explains Steve. "Commercial users and companies can synchronise data on MS-Exchange and Lotus Domino back ends, while individual users are supported either through synchronising with a POP3 account (possibly from an ISP) or the contents and calendar data from a PC that’s always connected." With broadband becoming more ubiquitous, that actually makes the idea of constant synchronising over the air as something that can have benefits. There’s still going to be a huge percentage of users that don’t need sync capabilities when they’re out and about (just a good backup / sync when they get into bluetooth range of their home PC). For those where the receipt of email, and having their diary always to hand is critical, then this could be the answer.

Visto are a company of nearly 200 staff, so their route to market is a direct consequence of this. The ‘Visto Mobile’ solution, be it the Business or Personal flavour, will only be available through your Network Operator. "This was a conscious decision to not fight in the marketplace and the retail market. Rather than get involved with a huge number of resellers and distributors, going through the Networks allows us to introduce this idea, and grow the mass market adoption of immediate access and delivery of information." Steve points out the success of the RIM Blackberry in the Financial Markets, and watching everyone at 3GSM, it would be fair to say that the ‘Crackberrry’ was probably the second or third most popular device being used in anger. "If you have a mobile from your business, it should not just be for voice calls," says Steve, "97% of North American users have said that email is their primary mode of communication. So we’ve focussed on those areas, chosen this route, and we’re doing very nicely."

"We’ve announced publicly 9 Networks who are going to be offering the Visto Mobile solution, including AT&T, Nextel and Rogers in the USA. We supply a Visto component that the Networks licence and run in their data system." So the only way for an end-user to get Visto Mobile is through their Network? "That’s right. The solution can be branded by the Operator [There’s the ‘operator branding’ line again – it’s a popular refrain from 3GSM this year - Rafe], and they sell it onto their customers, along with any subscription charge or GPRS offers. We’ll be announcing more partners throughout this year, and we will have many European and UK networks in there."

The big question, given the reputation of Symbian as regards syncing, is does it work? Yes is the simple answer. One of the strengths of Visto Mobile is that it uses the built in applications rather than a custom client. So using email for an example, the Nokia 9500 Messaging application has a new ‘Email’ box, that is treated (by the application) as if you had created another POP3 or IMAP box. In fact, this Visto box talks with the Visto server, and in it will be displayed the emails in your Exchange / Domino box, home PC or ISP’s email account. When you read an email, it’s obviously marked as ‘read’ on your device, but the email on Exchange (or wherever) is also marked as read, so when you get to your work PC, you can see what still needs doing.

[I’ve taken out this section because we don’t have a specific timeframe that we are giving for features such as syncing of sub-folders and we don’t sync the "Sent Mail" folder. It’s slightly misleading; we ensure that a record of all mails sent from the phone are stored in the sent folder on the phone and also on the PC; what we don’t do is keeping a record of all mails sent from the PC, in the sent folder on the phone. Probably easier to leave it out.]

Don’t forget that all this is happening not when you touch a button or start a program, but whenever your device is in GPRS coverage – it’s a constantly syncing solution, so when an email arrives, it’s instantly pushed onto your device. "People have an understanding and expectation of email delivery," Steve points out. "They expect it to be instant. So what we have here is a bit like a Blackberry, but with a much higher level of integration into Symbian OS than any other solution.

Visto Mobile doesn’t use SyncML in the current version. While it did so in a previous build, it now employs a custom solution. It makes the Visto platform much more flexible, and has the advantage of dropping the bandwidth requirement by 80%. Still, Visto Mobile is going to be pushing around a lot of data – how much is our GPRS bill going to be Steve? "For a regular user, it’s not going to be more than a few megabytes a month." Even on European data tariffs, that’s still a surprisingly affordable amount for what’s on offer. "Everything is run through your corporate spam filter, and we never push attachments automatically. We tell you they are there, and if you want them, you can pull them down individually, but we don’t see people using this service having a need to pull down a huge number of attachments in any case." When they are downloaded, they’re handled just like any standard email attachment, and can be opened with the built in viewers on each platform."

The Visto Mobile solution promises much, and from what was on show at 3GSM, it delivers where it needs. Being able to have the same information on your PC and on your mobile, and knowing that no matter where you are, the information will be in sync (or at least sync the next time you get into GPRS coverage), means that you can forget about having to actively check, or remember to connect to your PC. You can just get on with your working day, safe in the knowledge that while Visto may be ‘invisible’ to you it’s keeping you and your data visible no matter where you are. If the support from the Networks can get this into the hands of people who will genuinely find it useful, then Visto are onto a winner.

Links of Interest

Visto Homepage.