The term “personal cloud” is only about a year old and has a wildly disparate set of meanings. For some, services such as Facebook, Dropbox, and SugarSynch are personal clouds. For others the gold standard is iCloud, which stores data and media and manages your apps from all your devices – as long as they are all from Apple. I find myself agreeing with Jon Udell who writes in Wired, “I see signs of the personal cloud in services like Dropbox, Evernote, and Flickr. You can use them for free, or you can pay for higher capacity and enhanced customer service. But the personal cloud also arises from a way of thinking about, and using, any of the services the web provides.”
Yes. The personal cloud is a way of thinking and it is not necessarily a new way. Phil Windley and co-authors Craig Burton, Scott David, Drummond Reed and Doc Searls make this case well in a recent white paper, From Personal Computers to the Personal Cloud. As the title indicates, the authors contend that the best model for thinking about the personal cloud is in fact the personal computer. Gartner analyst Steve Kleyhans seconds this when he writes, “Many call this era the post-PC era, but it isn’t really about being ‘after’ the PC, but rather about a new style of personal computing that frees individuals to use computing in fundamentally new ways to improve multiple aspects of their work and personal lives.”
Most of the folks working on this nascent space agree that personal clouds will emerge because customers will demand secure and trusted access to their apps, data, and media anytime, anywhere from any device. Gartner, among others, believes that the market for personal clouds and everything they imply – connected services, devices and data — will be huge. By 2015 Gartner predicts we will spend some US$2.8 trillion worldwide on connected devices, the services that run them and content transferred through them. While we all agree that this is what the future looks like, how markets and technology will get there remains an open question.
Are Personal Clouds Inevitable?
Nothing is inevitable, but the promise offered by personal clouds of putting us back in charge of our personal data, of seamlessly and securely managing our online lives in a way that meets our own idiosyncratic needs, offers a powerful pull. Windley et at summarize the benefits succinctly. Personal clouds will 1) change how we relate to everything in our lives; 2) rearrange how we buy and sell products; and 3) revolutionize how we communicate with each other. Why? With personal clouds, we set the rules. Our identities can be fluid and flexible. Our data can be broadcast widely, hoarded or selectively shared. We will be able to have infinite channels, that work seamlessly, with people, companies, organizations, accounts, and more. When we have seamless access to all of our information, and control over the tools and services to use and understand it, everything changes.
While the potential is vast, the challenges are equally hard. Personal clouds that live up to the vision of trusted, secure, seamless services will require solving a host of hard problems. Windley et al have begun envisioning the next steps. Core to their vision is the development of a Cloud Operating System. Analogous to the OS that makes your PC run, the CloudOS will track your identity, attributes and preferences; run as many apps as you like; store and manage data distributed across the web; and host services for you to use. Here is a picture that Joaquin Miller put together after a session at the most recent IIW conference. The OS lives inside your cloud.
A Gathering of Clouds
While it is tempting to think of the personal cloud as one thing, living in one place like a personal computer, it is much more likely to be a window into a collection of stuff spread across the net. This makes sense because this is how the Net is structured. Virtual stuff doesn’t have to live anywhere – as long as there is a way for me to find it, I can get value from it. This feature is central to the radical potential of the Net, whose soul is vastly distributed and peer to peer.
We are now living in an era where increasing amounts of our data and services are living in virtual silos maintained and controlled by centralized companies. The personal cloud slices these silos open, letting the data flow around in new ways. This is highly disruptive and why Andrew Johnson of Gartner says, “Providers of consumer devices, services and content must anticipate the risk of sweeping changes to their business models. The personal cloud will force technology providers not only to rethink how they approach markets, but also, more importantly, how they define markets. ‘Emerging’ and ‘mature’ markets are no longer useful market segmentation.”
One of the reasons that the personal cloud will be so disruptive is that it’s not one cloud. There will be many clouds, capable of talking to each other, with many channels between them. As long as everything is interoperable, there could be many operating systems, many identity and trust networks, many services, and more. These “federated personal clouds” as Windley et al call them, mean that there will likely be many vendors in the mix offering different apps and services that work together. Federated clouds are much more likely to escape centralized control. This could engender huge new levels of innovation while empowering each of us at the same time.
This dynamic reminds me of one of my most beloved philosophical maxims, drawn from process theology. An omnipotent god who exerts absolute control over the universe creates a system that limits each individual’s creativity, resulting in a less creative whole. The god that grants creative control to the creatures and then lets each of them do their thing, ends up with a much richer and more powerful universe. The moral: centralized control constrains creativity and innovation. Something similar is afoot with the personal cloud. When each of us gains creative control over our virtual lives, the whole virtual universe becomes more innovative, creative and powerful.
Much of the current conversation is necessarily still in the programming weeds. My hope is that in parallel with much-needed technical development, we will continue to think through real world use cases that test emerging solutions. These use cases will not only offer leverage to those trying to build business models for the personal cloud, but they will help us ferret out the ethical issues that will inevitably arise.
I personally worry as much about the cloud doing too much for me as too little. If it does too little, then it will not have real value. If it does too much filtering, sorting and aggregating then I will potentially be replicating a new version of the filter bubble inside my own cloud. That’s just migrating creepy practices from our current silos into the personal cloud. We have to get the filters right. The trick will be to always, always err on the side of giving users control over their settings, channels, permissions and preferences. This is the beauty of putting the user in the center. The vendors that give me choice and control are the ones I will pick. The incentives between customer and vendor will align.