The Brushed Metal Diaries: iSync

In the Brushed Metal Diaries, we take a look at one of Apple’s most unique — and most hated — user interface paradigms.

An Intro to iSync

For most Mac users in the early 2000s, the word “sync” conjured up visions of iPods and USB cables. However, while an Apple smartphone was years away, in 2002, Apple introduced a tool to sync contacts and calendar events to mobile phones: iSync.

Just check out all this brushed metal:

iSync — in many ways — was the quintessential brushed metal application. In it’s Human Interface Guidelines, Apple said the UI appearance should be the defacto choice for applications that provided “an interface for a digital peripheral, such as a camera, or an interface for managing data shared with digital peripherals.”

iSync’s History

iSync was introduced in 2002. Here’s a bit of the original press release:

iSync ensures that address books and calendars flow seamlessly from a user’s Mac to all of their digital devices and back. Rather than requiring a separate synchronization application for each type of device, iSync works with the latest Bluetooth mobile phones, PalmOS devices and iPod to keep all these devices up to date. As a result, iSync users will enjoy seamless mobile access to schedules and other crucial information on all the devices they travel with.

iSync would launch as a public beta two months after being announced. It required OS X Jaguar, and would ship built-in with several major versions of Mac OS X.

Steve Jobs spoke about iSync at Macworld Paris in September 2002. “The purpose of iSync,” Jobs said, “is to synchronize our digital lives.”

Here’s what an early version of the iSync page looked like on Apple’s website. On the page, the company boasted integration with these classes of device:

  • iPods
  • Palm OS-powered handhelds (the iSync Palm Conduit was required)
  • GPRS Bluetooth-enabled wireless phones (like the Sony Ericsson T68i)
  • Other Macs (a paid .Mac subscription was required)

iSync passed address and calendar information between these devices. This allowed users to add or edit data from the comfort of their desktop, and provided a backup of data that users would lose if their phones were stolen or lost. This, Jobs said, made the cellphone a peripheral to the Mac. With the iPhone still five years off, it’s another example of Jobs having the uncanny ability to hint at the future when he himself probably didn’t have a fully-formed vision in his mind.

iSync 1 would receive numerous updates, adding support for more devices.

iSync 2.0 shipped with OS X Tiger in April 2005. With this release, Apple made the hard work of syncing data between Macs the system’s responsibility, leaving iSync alone with its ever-growing list of third-party devices.

iSync 2 received updates as part of 10.4.4, 10.4.6, 10.4.7 and 10.4.9, each time adding support for new devices.

iSync 3.0 shipped with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, and 3.1 shipped with Snow Leopard, but few new devices were added in the time between.

While Apple supported a decent number of handsets, a growing third-party plugin community sprung up to extend the program even further.

As did all other brushed metal apps, iSync received a new UI with Leopard:

With Mac OS X Lion, Apple removed iSync from OS X altogether.

In Conclusion

While iSync never saw the wide-spread use of some of the other brushed metal applications, it was a critical component to many nerds’ workflows. It’s wasn’t flawless — no sync system ever is, it seems — but it was one I relied on heavily. I used it for years to sync various Palm OS devices and iPods. In today’s world of iCloud and Google’s offerings, local Bluetooth sync seems old-fashioned, but it felt like magic at the time.