Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Microsoft's Debacle – and Google's Challenge

Microsoft’s (MSFT) recent debacle with its Sidekick device is the ugliest user experience we may have ever seen in wireless. The Sidekick device was the first one to backup and synchronize over the air (the “cloud”) to a central server starting already several years ago. The company behind the device was acquired by Microsoft 18 months ago, and after that point the Sidekick platform fell behind the competition – Blackberry (RIMM) and iPhone (AAPL) to begin with, and more recently also Palm/WebOS (PALM) and Google/Android (GOOG). Yet, the remaining Sidekick users appear to have lost all of their data as a result of Microsoft’s server failure.

What this saddest of technology sagas illustrates is that while cloud sync may be convenient, it is no replacement for making your own daily local backup on your own PC at home. Supplement, yes – replacement, no.

What that in mind, how will the typical consumer fare if he migrates from a Sidekick device to a Google/Android device made by HTC, Motorola (MOT) or Samsung, just to mention the manufacturers that will be in the market on T-Mobile and Sprint before Thanksgiving this year, according to their recent press releases? In particular, consider the following use case: An average consumer has a Microsoft Vista PC using Microsoft Outlook for his calendar and contacts database, or the equivalent on the Apple platform. He is not connected to an enterprise environment such as Microsoft Exchange. He may or may not be fine with any form of cloud sync for reasons of security and/or reliability, but in any case he just wants to do a local backup on his own PC, presumably using a simple USB cable.

This is what every consumer Blackberry user on a Windows OS has been doing for over 5 years. It works as simple as plugging in the cable and pressing “Synchronize” on the desktop utility. It synchronizes and backs up. You could have tens of thousands of calendar and contacts records, and it “just works” in a matter of a couple of minutes.

So does it work on Android phone? As it turns out, in every case except one, it does not. It fails this most basic requirement of security and reliability. Let’s go through the devices one by one:

T-Mobile USA offers two Android devices today, with a third on the way in a matter days or weeks. HTC makes the G1 and the MyTouch, and neither offers local sync to your non-Exchange Microsoft Outlook. If you trust Google to sync over the air, or if you have Microsoft Exchange, you’re fine. As far as Google’s cloud sync goes, how accurate is it for calendar and contacts? Does it still work if you have many tens of thousands of entries?

Hitting the T-Mobile USA stores supposedly on November 2 is the Motorola Cliq, announced on September 10. It works much the same way as the HTC devices, except it adds its own cloud sync software called MotoBlur. I asked several Motorola representatives at last week’s CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association) trade show in San Diego , where Motorola focused almost exclusively on this device, and the answer I received was that this service only handles 2,500 entries. That makes it essentially useless certainly for me, and just about everyone I know.

In addition, they described a complicated procedure for uploading one’s contacts/calendar data from Outlook to the MotoBlur cloud service for the initial set-up. What about getting this data out of the MotoBlur service if I change my mind and want to move to an iPhone on AT&T, PalmPre on Sprint or Blackberry on Verizon, I asked? They told me once the data has been sucked into the MotoBlur service, I can’t get it out. Ouch.

Samsung announced its first Android device for the US market, to be available on Sprint November 1. I asked several Samsung reps at the CTIA event if it can sync locally with Microsoft Outlook, and they all told me that it can’t. Basically, same story as with the two HTC devices currently offered by T-Mobile USA. Fail, fail, fail, fail on all these four Android devices.

This brings us to the fifth and final Android device in the US market this month, having just become available on Sprint October 11 – the HTC Hero. Guess what? It actually comes bundled with software that accomplishes this vital task required by most consumers.

So there we have it: 4 out of these 5 current or imminent Android devices are unsuitable for the average US consumer who has a local PC contacts/calendar database such as Outlook, and wants to keep it that way. Cloud sync has been showed to be potentially unreliable (to say the least) and may not even handle larger databases for those of us who have many thousands – or tens of thousands – of entries.

This should be an easy problem for companies such as HTC, Motorola and their current and future carrier partners to fix. It doesn’t require a change to any device hardware, and doesn’t add any noticeable cost. Let’s hope they see the light, or they will find themselves with many unhappy customers, poor reviews and a high return rate.

In the meantime, products such as the iPhone and Blackberry look very good in comparison – at least when it comes to this most basic and essential functionality. I see a marketing slogan for one of these companies in the near future: “Security and Reliability.”