The personal cloud is all about context

Gartner is back thumping about how the cloud will replace the PC as personal hub by 2014, and, whoa, that's not exactly so far away. I wrote the "ding dong, the PC's dead" last month. After identifying five trends then, the analyst firm today highlights three things cloud vendors had better watch out for.

Simply stated: "Mobility and location"; "platform independence"; and "seamless synchronization". That aptly describes what the cloud-connected -- oh, post-PC, if you insist -- era is all about: Personal computing anytime, anywhere on anything. However, many cloud offerings fall short of that definition and the three must-have characteristics Gartner defines.

"The personal cloud isn't a single offering, but a reflection of consumers' expectation that their content will flow seamlessly as the result of a combination of services that overlap the consumer, business and government domains", Michael Gartenberg, Gartner research director says. "It encompasses content storage, synchronization, sharing and streaming, as well as context-based access".

Context? That's a fourth attribute, and hugely important. Cloud computing is all about context, if you ask me. Not that you did, but hey. That's topic for after the discussion of the other three attributes.

Mobility and location is by far the easiest for cloud vendors, providing people access to their information -- and stuff that matters most to them -- from anywhere they can connect to the Internet. Gartner views this attribute as foundational, and claims it "will affect how other connected screens fare in a given ecosystem".

Related, many service providers focus on the wrong things, such as providing backups in the sky but not much else. "Consumers are confused about the nature of the personal cloud", Gartenberg says. "This will not be helped by many vendors continuing to equate personal cloud services simply with online storage and neglecting their additional features and potential".

Platform independence is related, and this is where I see lots of vendors coming up short. Again by my longstanding definition of cloud-connected devices, they should provide access to what matters most to you anytime, anywhere and on anything. That's difficult to impossible when vendors build cloud silos around platforms, such as Apple devices and iOS.

Openness is crucial as cloud services come to augment the personal PC and replace it as major personal hub. Again, Gartner predicts by 2014. The PC doesn't go away, but simply becomes one of many devices connected to the cloud rather than being the hub for everything.

Gartner's statement: "The core purchase driver for consumers will shift from the operating system to the nature and function of the personal cloud services available to a platform. Platforms will not be judged solely by number of apps, but also by the availability of core personal cloud services for business and personal needs, for both content creation and content consumption".

This prediction represents a fundamental shift in connected-device perception and presentation today, particularly from Apple and "there's an app for that" marketing of its hardware, software and services. The future Gartner sees is more in line with Google's "open" philosophy, but by no means completely.

While writing this post I got to thinking about a 1965 Rolling Stones song, which chorus fits the approach taken by cloud silo vendors like Apple:

I said, Hey! You! Get off of my cloud
Hey! You! Get off of my cloud
Hey! You! Get off of my cloud
Don't hang around 'cause two's a crowd

Amazon takes similar approach around Kindle Fire, although its cloud services are broadly available among devices. Samsung closes on the Apple model with newer Androids, TouchWiz UI and supporting media services. Facebook is another silo, although of a different kind. Facebook service meets the anytime, anywhere on-anything standard, but it's a private club personal cloud once you're there. As I opined in September 2007: "Facebook is an operating system in the cloud".

Synchronization is what I've repeatedly called the killer app for the connected world, starting in 2006. But I typically refer back to March 2008 post "Do IT simply with sync": "Synchronization is today's killer application. It's either kill or be killed. If Microsoft doesn't strike the deadly blow first, Google will".

Gartner's statement: "Seamless synchronization will be essential for success". Apple has got seamless down but not platform independence. Too bad, because Apple has long been the sync leader, in terms of a meaningfully-implemented technology -- and that goes back to iTunes after iPod shipped in late 2001. Problem: iTunes proved to be the wrong place for sync, particularly businesses and for consumers as cloud adoption escalated late in the last decade. Last year, Apple rightly shifted its sync hub from iTunes to iCloud. Problem: It's a silo syncing content mostly among iOS and OS X devices.

Again, Google stands apart from the cloud, which isn't surprising. Apple and Microsoft, for example, share desktop legacy, which relevance they seek to protect. While Microsoft's cloud approach is less a silo than Apple's, it's nowhere near as platform independent as Google's. That said, Google has started to offer more cloud benefits in Chrome than other web browsers, shifting its cloud more to the silo from open skies.

Context, and not content, is king. How we use devices, access information, consume content or otherwise use technology to entertain or conduct business is all about context. Cloud-connected devices create all kinds of contextual scenarios.

For example, mobile devices make people more available to family, friends, coworkers and (gulp) bosses. You might shift context at the park with the kids to account manager because of one text, email or phone call. Location doesn't change, but context does. You go from parent uploading photos of the kids playing to executive collaborating on a shared document. All in the cloud, from the same device. Use of the cloud and connected device changes with context.

A very different contextual example: You're traveling and decide to rent a movie to watch on your smartphone or tablet. In that context, the smaller screen is acceptable, even though at home you have 55-inch TV. You don't finish the film and want to resume it at home on the television. Context and device change, but content stays the same. Seamless sync allows you to resume where you left off.

"Consumers will define their own sets of personal cloud services with regard to communication, collaboration and media consumption, despite vendors trying to control the digital ecosystem", Gartenberg says. Context defines usage.

The contextual cloud works best when there is access anytime, anywhere and on anything -- or as Gartner puts it: "Mobility and location"; "platform independence"; and "seamless synchronization".

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