Getting personal with the cloud

If there’s one thing the IT industry is spectacularly good at, it is producing buzzwords. Marketing executives – even management gurus – look enviously over their shoulders at our industry’s propensity to churn out a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new acronyms and expressions.  We over use them in PowerPoint, extolling the virtues of the latest X and how it will mean Y to Z and to all of Z’s customers.  Meanwhile our audiences wearily roll their eyes upwards at each new piece of jargon!

So, after an endless diatribe of Private Clouds, Public Clouds and Hybrid Clouds, does anybody have the energy for Personal Clouds?  And when we learn it is rooted in consumer IT – itself the most crowded territory for industry jargon (think ‘Mobile’, ‘Post PC’, ‘BYOD’, ‘User Experience’ – it never stops) – we’re reaching for the off switch.  Why should we care?  Perhaps more to the point, why should I risk antagonising you by writing a blog on the subject?

I could start by explaining the idea of the Personal Cloud is gaining traction across the IT industry.  Gartner, for example, were predicting last month that Personal Cloud would replace the PC by 2014.   Or that a cursory search of Google Trends shows the term first appearing in web searches as recently as June 2011, and growing rapidly ever since.  But hype of course is no justification of something’s worth in itself. Worse, it’s so often accompanied by the array of contradictory definitions that seem to meet every new piece of IT terminology.  The important thing is to look at what is actually happening out there.  Because whatever words we want to use, whatever charts we want to draw, an important development is taking place.

For me there are two parts to this.

One is that we now have an unprecedented range of consumer utilities at our disposal to enable our – for want of a better phrase – personal productivity. All the things that you need to do in your daily life – communicate, write, find things out, calculate, plan and schedule, collaborate and share – are enabled by software.  And these days you are quite likely to go online for your software because, let’s face it, apps are as cheap as chips and very often they are free.  When consumed in this way, the set of utilities starts to resemble a virtual space which exists somewhere ‘out there’. This is where the term Personal Cloud may start to seem relevant.  Moreover, this is perhaps the first truly consumerized set of software with real consumer product DNA. It is pure B2C, whereas MS Office and its ilk have their heritage in B2B – even when they have been sold to the C.

Second is to consider this in the context of mobile devices. It is fair to say that if you use a PC you are probably happy to use a workspace that is fixed and licensed to that machine. Traditionally, that has been provided for you by your company. More than likely you have created a similar environment on a home PC – maybe the software was cheaper than the corporate version but nonetheless what you bought came in a cardboard box wrapped in cellophane.  Its code is now firmly attached to the hard disk – as is the information you have created from it.  Mobile changes everything.  You probably don’t need me to argue that with a mobile device, online, consumer software makes the most sense. But here’s the thing. The real value of Personal Cloud is not about your first mobile device, it’s about your second, and your third.  As you add more devices – a smartphone here, a media tablet there, so it becomes more beneficial to you that your software and personal information are virtualised and accessible.   DropBox and Apple’s iCloud are enjoying huge popularity as people realise how much easier it is to have a consistent experience across their devices.  Of course you also have come to realise you need – and expect – the same experience across all of your computers – home and work.

Lurking behind all this, like a troublesome and unwelcome party guest, is a profound implication for the way that businesses deliver end user computing to their employees.  Because now you’ve got your personal devices synced, isn’t it time you also synced your work stuff?  And if you already have a virtual workspace, which by the way you can access at work, why would you need your employer to provide you with an alternative, possibly inferior one?  And would you use it?

There is already strong impetus in the enterprise for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and no doubt you will be familiar with the arguments.  The use of mobile in the workplace is a disruptive force and is being viewed by the enterprise, albeit with suspicion, as mostly harmless.  But the argument for Personal Cloud is slightly different. Devices are as varied as they are disposable.  Their useful life expectancy is falling. No one device will define what’s personal to us.  It will be our own personal experience – the set of information and applications that we use – that will become the footprint that defines us and persists with us.  This is what Personal Cloud has the potential to deliver.

Personal Cloud is therefore likely to overtake mobile as the number one headache for CIOs.  Consumer technology has a Trojan Horse feel about it.  It sits outside the enterprise walls, gathering a lot of attention, as suspicious IT functions ready themselves to accept the seemingly harmless gift.  But as we all know, it wasn’t a big hollow wooden horse that did for the Trojans.  It was its payload of Greek warriors, led by Odysseus, who crept out in the dead of night and opened up all the city gates to break a ten year deadlock.  Likewise, Personal Cloud will be carried into the enterprise on mobile devices.  It will change the way enterprises deliver end-user computing for good.

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