The old school model has been data everywhere and in its proper place. This directly relates to an old world paper model. Whether at home or at work each bit of data had a place. There was a file folder, nicely labeled, and placed in a drawer. That’s why, when you go to the doctor, you get to write the same information down several times on different sheets of paper. Each sheet has a purpose and a location it will get filed into. As we have moved into the computer age we have carried this model with us. There was data on the desktop at work, data on the desktop at home, data on the file server and data on the laptop; oh, and data on the phone.
Lo and behold we found that, sometimes, data wasn’t where we wanted it. The first solution was manual transfer. I mean a really manual transfer. We would write data on a piece of paper and enter it back into another computer. Some people still do this when moving contacts from their desktop to their phone. This was replaced by sneaker-net where data was copied onto a storage medium and then read back in on another computer. First there was the floppy disk and today there is the USB thumb drive. Next came the network. Finally data was easy to move. That is it was easy as long as you were on the net.
The problem was that home wasn’t connected to work nor was the hotel room connected to either one. This was attacked via remote logins and by sending email messages with files attached. However, attachment file size limits have made email problematic for the transfer of large files. FTP transfers had no such limitation but were cumbersome. Another attempt, still widely used today, is syncing. You sync your iPhone and iPad to your home computer so your songs and data travel with you. Less successful have been attempts to sync laptops to your desktop. The latest attempts at fixing this issue have been Dropbox, Yousendit, MobileMe, Windows Live Mesh and Live Sync. These help and are the first steps towards a cloud computing solution. Well, technically, Live Sync and Yousendit aren’t cloud based but I see them as very related. Live Sync can be viewed as a peer to peer extension of classic synchronization software but it feels closer to the cloud solutions when you use it. Actually, Dropbox, MobileMe, and Windows Live Mesh are really a merging of synchronization and cloud services. Synchronization has the advantage of maintaining a local copy so work can continue smoothly when the network is down or slow. The cloud aspect means that you can access your data even when you are away from a machine that is being synchronized. As an example, if a PICTURES folder is on the MobileMe iDisk, under the Dropbox folder, or is selected for Windows Live Mesh, the content in PICTURES can be accessed from a friend’s web browser with the proper login. Sharing content with others is also fairly straightforward. If you haven’t used these services be sure to try them. All but MobileMe are free at the basic level. MobileMe is about to get a major change so hold off on it till you see what the changes bring.
What we are seeing is the rising importance of transparency. In this case it is transparent data access. We want our pictures, music, movies and documents whenever we decide to view them, wherever we happen to be, and using whatever device is handy at the moment. The methods above aren’t totally transparent but they are a big improvement. When I got my iPhone, I left the Apple store with email, contacts and my calendar on my phone. Today, between my laptop, iPad and iPhone, a contact, calendar event or email added to one appears on all of the others. If need be, I can access it all through a web browser on any machine with web access. Key files, including the document I am editing now, are synchronized across devices as well as being stored in the cloud. What we are seeing is the beginning of data transparency. There is a lot more to be done. In the end you won’t think about where your data is.
Recall what I said about major trends. Do the approaches above seem too similar? Is transparency just a minor trend that seems major? Was I wrong about trends and is this a case of one with a clear development path? The answer is no to all of the above. There are other directions to data transparency.
Look at the RIM Playbook.Its Blackberry Bridge technology takes a different approach to transparency by tethering the Playbook to a Blackberry phone. One advantage of this is a single data connection, and hence a single expense, for both the phone and the tablet. By definition email is in sync since email is really through the phone at all times. A big problem with this is that the tablet becomes tethered to the phone in such a strong way that it is no longer a separate device.
Need another direction? Look at the Motorola Atrix with its laptop dock. In this case the laptop is just an accessory screen and keyboard for the phone. Like the Playbook, the laptop is worthless without the phone. For some reason I don’t see that as a major problem. However, layz person that I am, I dislike the idea of having to plug and unplug the phone from the laptop accessory.
Yet another approach was outlined by HP CTO Phil McKinney here. He describes the Fossil Metal Watch which will allow you to carry your data with you. All of your devices connect to the watch for data access. One problem, among several, is that a lot of people don’t wear a watch anymore. Furthermore, the watch screen is useless for data access. This means that you must, at the minimum, carry a phone in order to have access to a useful screen. Since you are carrying the phone anyway, why not just build the ability to be the data hub into the phone? In reality, that is what is going to happen.
So, what is the final answer? All of the above or at least parts of all of the above will survive the cut. The cloud will become very important and syncing will hang around. Rather than wearing a watch with our data stored on it, we will carry our phones. The phone will move from being an accessory to the laptop to being the main computing device with the laptop as an accessory. The current iPhone has 32GB of storage. It won’t be long until 1TB will be the standard. At that point there will be enough storage for the phone to be the primary data store. But, there will still be a need for offline storage. Also, there is the need to make sure critical data is backed up. That means syncing will stay around. This also means a cloud services component. Cloud services will allow access when the device isn’t with you and the sharing of files with friends. Mixing syncing with cloud services will mean gaining access to you apps and songs and OS updates without resorting to a PC. Expect to see iTunes move more completely to the cloud very soon i.e. in the next few months. What about the Atrix type device? My problem with the Atrix is that I am lazy and I think others are too. I don’t want to take out my phone and plug it in. Instead, I want it to link wirelessly to a keyboard-screen combination. Imagine going home and sitting at your computer. It lights up with what you were working on last. You get up and walk away. The screen goes blank. When you get to work and sit down the screen lights up again with what you were working on. A quick click of a mouse button switches the device to your work configuration and you are on your way. Your tablet will link to your phone to transparently gain access to your data. The same will be true for your TV. Imagine a video call on your phone. You sit down, tap an icon on your phone and the call is transferred to your TV so the entire family can see and talk to Grandma. Wherever we are, we will use the device that suits us at the moment. That device will have immediate access to all of our data. We will move from device to device easily even when we are in the middl of a task. The companies that best develop and integrate with this ecosystem win.