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In our shuffling ascending spiral motion up the great Tower of Time, we do denial at every turn of the stair. A year ago: “Devices are just display tech and will never replace real multi-functional office computing”. Today: “Everything goes to the Cloud”. Last year: “Everybody must build all the functionality into Apps”. Now: “Personalization will overtake Apps before Apps take over publishing”. The result is familiar. Let me see if I can deepen the gloom and make the waters more muddy for a moment, knowing that our only hope of insight comes from bafflement and obscurity.
It seems to me for a start that publishers really do not like Apps. They are convenient, developers love them, they work at the subscription level, but as information products they are not very satisfying. Many of them lack the linkability which has now become a habit of mind for network users. They are certainly Workflow, and invaluable if you are buying a train ticket or booking an hotel. Elsewhere they are often Shortcuts to Nowhere. The statistics tell us that the vast majority of App downloads are never used twice. Since they are tied to devices and the formatting demanded by device manufacturers they do not meet the expectation that we encouraged the former print world to accept: go digital neutral and cover every channel of distribution. They work well for community and clubs, where they can act as a holding point for shared content and a jumping off point for discussion, but I am becoming so unsure of the hegemony of Devices that it is undermining my faith in Apps as well.
The last straw was a note on Pebble in the Guardian (8 May 2012). Pebble is a wristwatch lookalike device based on eInk and providing email and text access on Android and iPhone. (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-04/12/pebble-e-ink-smartwatch). This really hurts. I have been going round for years telling everyone that the reason my children do not seem to wear watches is that they are people of a modern age who work (albeit late) on network time. But despite the founders of Pebble raising £5 million in funding through product pre-purchases, this only convinces me even more that we are wrong if we start “publishing to” devices as if they were a platform or a channel. I think that our efforts need to be directed elsewhere, while we watch devices morph into new forms and bifurcate across functions. The day will come when we shall each have several (I have unfortunately already arrived) and they will be dedicated to use purposes in our lives – this for flying, that for taking to meetings, this other for holidays etc. The device spec will be governed by our purposes and requirements in these functions, not by any attempt to put every function into every device. The device in the car will have different requirements from the one in the kitchen, though of course some of the functionality will be the same.
All of which rather begs the question of what environments we should be publishing for if not specifically for Apps and devices. And the answer, of course, is the personalized Cloud. The environments we should be watching are Apple’s iCloud, and Amazon (AWS)’s CloudSearch. In this sense, current battles in the book sector are simply a kindergarten warm-up for the big battles out in the playground at lunch hour. Current popular neurosis about privacy (an odd but real phenomenon, since the security services have always had unfettered access to our deepest secrets, at least since Sir Francis Walsingham bought his first thumb screw) and the business drive to Cloud computing will come together in Personal Cloud. There I will have my library, my searchable subscriptions and, above all things, my Cloud Server. This will end all questions about the Web as a service venue – it will become a place for browse and research, not a full service zone. That I will control for myself, as well as all the data derived from it, and on that server I will decide what access to content derived from me and my activities that I give to third parties (using long available services like Paoga – www.paoga.com – to do this). The device that measures my blood pressure files the results in my Cloud, gives me well-informed medical guidance from the selection of service vendors that I trust and subscribe to, but only releases my actual results to my physician at regular periodicity – and his monitoring devices tell him when we need to talk. Come to think of it, the Pebble strapped round my wrist could handle the pulse for a start!
I have too little space here to demonstrate the full extent of my ignorance more than superficially. My feeling from reading is that Amazon’s announcements last month now put them a little in the lead over Apple and Google (http://www.readwriteweb.com/cloud/2012/04/amazon-beats-google-to-a-cloud.php). Apple’s concern was content sharing across devices (https//www.apple.com/uk/iCloud). Googles of course was search, but clearly both Amazon and Google are alike in the vastness of their server farm environments and their ability to support global personal and corporate Cloud usage. And Amazon, having started AWS in 2006, may be said to have the experience, and the readiness to move into these new worlds. We are entering the age of “he is so old he can remember when Amazon was a bookseller”. An annual rental of CloudSearch costs 100 USD.
So has my once upon a time dream of the consolidated omni device completely faded? Probably so, though we are likely to be bewildered by the range of device offerings and their narrow differentiation for many years to come. Meanwhile, the next virtual world builds quietly in the Cloud, and demands our total attention.