The Future of Mobile Sync

2010-09-03 00:00:00 +0100 by Alex R. Young
This article is by [Alex Kessinger](http://alexkessinger.net). He works for Yahoo! as an FE, and is currently working on a book about [HTML5 Apps](http://alexkessinger.net/story/i-am-writing-book-real-one) for [Packt](http://www.packtpub.com/). You can also follow him on Twitter: [@voidfiles](http://twitter.com/voidfiles).

The mobile web apps community has been systematically knocking down the
barriers to building apps on web technologies. We have offline data
, offline application
, coming soon we
will have access to devices, and
files, but there is something missing: data sync.

As a web developer, I have always felt that mobile web apps are just
like small web pages. If you think about web apps like that, you can see
how many of our traditional FE methods can be used to build mobile apps.
Data sync is a relatively new requirement for web developers. Yes, we
have had server communication for a long time, in which we could
transfer data, but web pages going offline for long periods of time is

It also doesn't seem like we are going to get any guidance from the
standards bodies. In the Dive Into HTML5, Mark Pilgrim states:

"If your application creates data or saves state, it's up to you to store that data locally while you're offline and synchronize it with the remote server once you're back online. In other words, HTML5 can take your web application offline. What you do once you're there is up to you." (source)

While Pilgrim is not the W3C, he does have input, and was apart of the
process. What it means is that it's up to us the community to figure
this out. I am writing this for a couple of reasons. First, let's get
all the prior work into the open. It's possible somebody somewhere has
figured this out, or there might be a solution that has been overlooked.
Two, there are existing standards that might be used, we should take a
look. Finally, there are a couple of different sync scenarios, and they
might have different solutions we should take a look at a couple.

Libraries, and the greater Internet, might have the information we need,
but I figured that if I couldn't even find anything on the surface that
looked close to a solution then I should ask the community first, it
might save time. I was able to find a couple possible starting points.
These are specific to sync.

These seem to have a largish amount of people behind each project.
SyncML seems to be the most open, which I know is hard word to define,
but they are all lacking something. I know it's an incredibly
un-technical way of assessing an idea, but I don't see hackers using any
of the above I am open to be proven wrong though. I also found a 2 year

to a thing called AtomDB, which was going to be based on the AtomPub
spec, but it's 2 years old.

Are any of the above possible players in mobile web apps? I don't know,
I am partial to saying I don't think so. If there isn't anything out
there we should probably try and define some of the problems that will
need to be solved. I have two scenarios in mind.

The first scenario is like a text based sync. In this scenario the user
has lots of textual data, like a bunch of notes, something similar to
Simplenote. The user goes offline for a while. While offline they make changes to a note, and let's say they
have a shared note with a friend. This friend modifies the same note
while the user is offline. Now, we have two notes with changes that
aren't in sync. The user comes back online, and then what happens? That
is scenario one. I think this one could be handled by some kind of
versioning scheme like git, and svn merge code.

The second one is a buisnessy one. Let's say a traveling sales man is
out selling some widgets. He has a mobile order entry device. He has an
internal copy of the inventory data that stays closely in sync with the
central copy until he goes offline. When he enters his order he is
offline. While he is offline a co-worker in the central office takes a
phone order. They both need to see the rest of the inventory. When the
traveling salesmen comes back online there is now a conflict, but it
can't easily be merged -- there has to be a resolution of some kind.

Mayby both of these problems are incredibly unique to their respective
circumstances. Even if they are unique, there has to be repeatable
patterns that can be used. There must be a way to provide a framework to
handle sync, and either it exists out there, or someone needs to build

I would like to note that Couchio seems to be
trying to fix this problem with CouchDB. They might have more to say,
but they have an interesting model for how web apps could use CouchDB.
For example, on the Android platform CouchDB can run as a service in the
background. Your web app would be able to talk to the local CouchDB
server all the time. When you device is online CouchDB will handle the
data sync to an upstream database.

That would be awesome, but it's not a standard, and it's not everywhere.
Even if they figure out how to get it on to many different devices in
the future it still might take awhile, and I think we need something
sooner then that.

This is a call to action, do we have a problem, is their a solution
already, do we need to build something?