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Sproqit serves real-time PC access to PDA owners

Never need HotSync again - or a high-end device, for that matter...

Mobile data devices, such as PDAs and smartphones, may now be fully part of the wireless world, but they still suffer from a major drawback: the information they provide often isn't real-time data. Remote synchronisation allows you to back-up your data while you're out of the office, but it won't let you pick up and edit that Word file you forgot to include in your last sync.

Portability tools like Documents to Go or Pocket Office let you take files on the road with you, but you have to choose in advance what files you're going to need. But lose your PDA before you've synchronised, and you lose all the changes you've made to your data.

There's another problem. As Palms and Pocket PCs have evolved beyond simple data viewing tools, they have become faster and more capacious. But not enough to run full-blown versions of desktop applications. Where handheld equivalents of desktop applications exist, they're often poor relatives, functionally less capable than their PC-based cousins. E-mail apps, for example, generally don't provide the same level of mail management, filtering that desktops versions do.

Peter Mansour, CEO of Sproqit, believes such limitations can be overcome, and it doesn't take ever more powerful devices to do it. Quite the reverse, in fact.

For the last two years, Sproqit has been developing software technology that will allow PDAs and other mobile devices to deliver not only the full functionality of desktop applications, but real-time access to data stored on PCs.

Sproqit's architecture, called Spider Silk, cleverly separates application logic from display code. That's not new - Citrix's WinFrame software uses a similar approach - but it's arguably the first to do so in a personal desktop context. Essentially, applications continue to run on the desktop, via Sproqit Desktop Agent, and all that's transmitted across the Internet to the PDA telling it what to display. The handheld runs Sproqit Companion, a 200KB app that presents the data to the user using the hardware's native UI - so it looks like an embedded app. And by only transmitting display-related data, the systems bandwidth needs can be satisfied by slow networks like GSM.

Companion is currently available for Palm, Pocket PC and J2ME platforms. Sproqit is completing a Symbian version, and, according to Mansour, has been "requested" to investigate porting it to Linux. Any of these can talk to the same Desktop Agent running on a Windows PC.

Companion intelligently caches the data it receives to allow the user to continue working if the available bandwidth dips. How the PDA connects to the Internet doesn't matter - modem, cellphone, 802.11 or fixed wire - as long as there's a connection, you can access your data.

Sproqit Desktop Agent is modular, using plug-ins to connect applications and their data to the system. Sproqit's basic set of plug-ins mirror Microsoft Outlook functionality - e-mail, contacts, calendar and so on - plus file management, allowing the PDA to navigate your folders and file, essentially giving full access to your PC. Create an email or a calendar entry, and you're actually doing so on your PC, not the handheld. Edit a file and the changes are made instantly - no synchronisation is necessary.

Security is ensured through a 128-bit SSL link between mobile and PC. That connection is shepherded by Sproqit's third component, server software that helps Companion and Desktop Agent locate each other and establish a direct connection. Once the connection is made, Sproqit Server leaves them to it. Authentication is provided at the network level and the device level, so if you leave your Palm at home, you can still access the data on your PC via your mobile phone.

Selling Sproqit Server is one of the company's planned revenue streams. It's targeting corporates who are looking to deliver more to their mobile workers than the email functionality offered by the likes of Blackberry. It's SDK allows corporates to create the plug-ins that tie their desktop apps into Desktop Agent. Once that's done, users can make use of those apps via any device running Companion. It's not unlike Java's 'write once run anywhere' concept, but with Sproqit there's no need to download applets. The SDK is free of charge, a move intended to encourage desktop application developers to provide a better mobile experience to their users.

Sproqit also sees lucrative deals offering the same technology to wireless carriers keen to offer their customers greater mobile functionality. Personally, we like the idea of streaming MP3s across an 802.11 network to our Palm at the drop of a hat and without having to set up any servers or anything. It's not being made widely available, but Sproqit wrote a WinAMP plug-in to do just that.

The company also wants mobile device manufacturers to get in on the deal. Mansour predicts we'll see Sproqit-oriented devices appearing 18-24 months down the line, offered by vendors keen to offer low-cost but high value devices. It doesn't take a top-of-the-range ARM CPU to run a basic UI, a networking stack and the 200KB Companion.

With the devices will come a greater pressure for developers to ship Desktop Agent plug-ins with their apps. Equally, without those app plug-ins, the value of Sproqit-based devices is diminished. So it's no wonder the company is targeting corporates first. 'Sproqitising' an application is just a matter of describing its UI layout and user interactions using XML then creating a thin translation layer that provides the client data for display when requested by Companion via Desktop Agent. The SDK is geared toward Win32 developers, but it doesn't sound beyond the wit of Linux coders to figure out how to create the same results through their own APIs. Ditto programmers working with other platforms.

Sproqit doesn't render today's PDAs redundant, but if the company can build behind the platform the momentum it hopes it can, it does have the potential to limit their demand to gadget fans and people who don't own a PC. Provided Sproqit can get the application support and persuade hardware developers to build Sproqit-based machines, it can and will appeal to the great number of PDA users who today simply use their devices as a way of carrying their data around. Sproqit will effectively allow them to take not only more information with them, but do rather more with it than they can today.

Related Link

Sproqit's web site

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