From Desktops and Mobiles to Simply Devices: A Conceptual Shift

For quite a while now there have been attempts within the IT community to shift the way businesses use computers (the thin client is one example) but the paradigm shift from stationary computers that are the center of ones data and work (or at least appear to be) to a more flexible cloud solution have never really taken off. This has not been due to a lack of ideas or effort, but there have been a lot of technical barriers as well as office culture obstacles in the way of the change. As the infrastructure in many companies improve some degree of success has been possible, such as user documents and settings being stored effectively central servers and mobile device syncing, but these are but small steps toward totally untethering people from their sense of connectedness to their desk computer as their real hub and anything else as an accessory.

This has been even more true with home users, who have generally seen a primary desktop or laptop as their hub and anything else (cloud storage, mobile devices, netbooks, etc) as simply add-ons to their hub computer. In the case of iOS devices, this feeling has been very strong as anything from activation to backup of the devices required a wired computer connection. There have been an increasing number of companies attempting to move people out into the cloud and get them to think about their computer as a client and not the centre of their computing universe. Dropbox, SugarSync and MobileMe are a few services that attempted to do this, but none of them really worked in a way that shifted the average user to thinking about the cloud as the base of their computer life. At best those services replaced USB thumb drives and at worst they left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

Home users and companies are both getting used to the idea of having their contacts, mail and calendar floating around in the etherial cloud and accessible but that is really how far the mainstream conceptual shift has gone to date. Most people accept that these things just work now and use them daily without really thinking about it. Cloud storage of documents, photos, etc, still tends to require quite a bit of user participation, not to mention planning, software and a variety of services for different uses. This keeps the user in the PC-as-hub-centric state of mind.

Along comes Steve Jobs at the WWDC in 2011, introducing both a service called iCloud and a new concept (to the home user, at least): the cloud as the hub and each device (including PC’s, phones and tablets) as a seamless team to use in your daily life. This relegates the almighty home PC to a role as just another web connected device in your inventory and, as Steve Jobs says, “The truth is in the cloud”. Having apps on both computers and devices manage where documents go and syncing them across devices is a huge conceptual shift from the current pattern of saving anywhere on a PC, often leading to the “I think I saved it in Documents, but it could be the Desktop, or was it on my external drive?” conundrum that many users regularly face. The vast majority of users don’t need to control where they saved a document, they just need the ability to save, share and find a document when they need it. Apple is attempting to shift in this direction with iCloud on iOS, Mac OS Lion and iCloud for Windows. This has already worked very well on iOS and Android devices, and people have generally adjusted to apps controlling how things are saved. Now it might be time to see if the same will work on people’s home computers as well. Of course, for users like myself who use large amounts of data for photos and video a cloud service cannot yet replace the home PC, but could definitely make day-to-day uses go smoother.

For enterprise this type of service will create no small number of headaches in the short term with security and user expectation, but these are not things that cannot be overcome. The truth is that with some modifications to the security and configuration of a system like iCloud it could easily increase productivity and reach some goals that many companies have strived for over the last decade or so. An enterprise service, perhaps an “iCloud Enterprise” could be made to be used within a secure corporate environment and follow their security policy. Once it was up and running it would reduce downtime for users when hardware problems occurred and could help companies that are using hoteling and flexible seating plans. A previous post I wrote last year regarding the potential of a device like AppleTV 2 could easily be realized under such a model. I still believe that enterprise IT and services like iCloud are not quite where they need to be yet for a true revolution in business, but it is definitely getting closer.

Many users have been attracted by the just-does-what-I-want-it-to experience of iOS and Android devices and it is an increasingly growing segment of the market. The desire to be able to just use a device to send off an email, write a document or edit some photos without much effort has always been there but did not really become a real expectation until the mobile device revolution.

Now wouldn’t it be nice if you could have the same experience on your PC when you need to use it for something that mobile devices still don’t do?

Apple is banking on you wanting that, and it is looking like a pretty safe bet. Google is also well poised to follow a similar pattern and will be expected to announce similar services soon. Microsoft would probably be wise to get on the boat and not be left behind like they did with tablets. With the pace-of-change once again increasing, it is not a good time to be left behind.

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