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Cognima demos self healing, self updating mobile phone

Your contacts synced now, tomorrow the lot?

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London-based start-up Cognima has received plenty of press in the financial pages since it was founded in 2001, by attracting VC money and top talent with roots in Symbian, Apple and Palm. But until today it was extremely secretive about what it was up to.

Now the cloaking shields have been de-activated, their wares are on general show, and very impressive they are too. But Cognima's software will have a resonance far beyond its target market of phone carriers: it highlights a couple of fault-lines in personal technology that will have more than their share of tremors, we modestly predict.

Firstly, where does your Address Book really live? On your phone or PDA, or on your PC? Or, as Ellison and McNealy would argue, on a big webtone switch? This skirmish is at the heart of the battle between Microsoft and Nokia, and informs much of the Beast's reluctance to come over all deaf when the industry talks interoperability standards: Bluetooth or SyncML, for example. And this, in turn, is a critical factor in the adoption of smartphones in large enterprises. And secondly, it does offer a glimpse of mobiles as smart self-configuring devices.

So what does it do?

Cognima's software allows you to make backups of your phone's address book to a server, and any other devices you care to associate with your profile. It also works uploads pictures to a website and configuration information or messaging. There's no "backup" button - it just happens. Effectively it's a distributed object database that pulls mobile phones into "the cloud".

This has an obvious attraction for mobile phone users, most of whom can't or simply don't synchronize their data with a PC and for whom a backup means writing out the numbers longhand. Cognima founder Simon East demonstrated the 'Replicate' software running on a Handspring Treo and a Nokia 7650 - two high-end devices that analysts classify as communicator class PDAs, or smartphones - but he says his major target is the 400 million not-so-smartphones.

There's a small 70kb piece of code running on the handset, and an Oracle database running on Sun kit over at the carrier. The versions we saw cheated slightly - by running Cognima's own contact software on the client. But Cognima has signed a deal with contract manufacturer TTPcom, so carriers - who are feeling bolder about setting phone specifications - will be able to order a handset with Cognima's contact software. In any case, said East, Cognima will support Symbian and probably Palm's address book.

The software on the handset sends a "trickle" SMS to the server - at no cost to the user - which then pulls the modifications up and adds them to the database, sending the changes out to other devices. Change a number on your phone and the server and other devices have it within a few seconds, with no manual intervention. We also saw a demo of a picture upload, and East said that it can save to a public or private area on a webserver, and potentially of course,

Other demos include replicating ringtones and messaging, and "pushing" configuration profiles out to users without manual intervention. Right now, it isn't too bad: you'll get configuration information via an SMS text message, but Cognima's version is better, being completely hands-free. However East says carriers and users biggest demand is for "the pervasive phonebook". (That's our jargon, not theirs).

Stealth technology

Now Cognima is keen not to get into a sync business occupied by companies such as Extended Systems, or the system integration business. It's working with partners for the latter.

However, it's clear that without too much additional work, an enterprise could achieve the nirvana of maintaining a company-wide address book that's always up to date. It instantly brings data that's isolated in silos such as Notes and Exchange databases onto to something that needs substantially less maintenance. (Or so Oracle would argue.)

So what's the answer to the question posed by the title of this article? The PC is currently the client for the corporate address book. There's a strong case for keeping it there, because it's easier to enter information on a full-sized keyboard, and because synchronization between client and server (Exchange or Notes) is now mature and fully well proven.

However, Cognima provides a fairly compelling alternative. And remember, when most people exchange contacts, they're nowhere near a PC. And if they're exchanging by beaming, rather than exchanging paper cards, then there's less if any justification for lugging around something with a full keyboard.

So you don't need much imagination to see how the client of choice for corporate information becomes a smartphone/PDA, "disintermediating" the PC? and those Exchange and Notes servers. And that ought to be causing some late nights up in Redmond. And Microsoft can choose to play nice, or play nasty on this one. ®

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