We have been doing Desert Island Discs in my family. For non-UK readers, this refers to a radio programme which for some 50 years has asked a guest each week to nominate 8 discs they would like to be washed up on a desert island with – and why. My sister, yanking us all back to our first wind-up gramophone of circa 1952, nominated Guy Mitchell singing “Cloud Lucky Seven”. You can find it on YouTube: a powerful demonstration of why it was necessary to invent Elvis Presley. But also a reminder, as I baked in 98 Fahrenheit New York this week under pitiless, cloudless skies, that it is often the case, once something has been invented, that it is necessary to discover it. And as Presley discovered in the ambient music of his culture what had been there in black and rhythm and blues for generations, so Steve Jobs announced the rediscovery of something very familiar to all of us, and rebranded it iCloud. It is very clever, this rediscovery, and often hugely successful.

Which is a natural segue to Steve Jobs and iCloud, a rediscovery so dramatic that a whole generation will grow up thinking that this great marketeer invented remote storage, despite the fact that everyday life, from Googlemail to Salesforce.com, would be unthinkable without remote storage, and that our future as information processors has nothing to do with local storage. But the real significance of the iCloud announcement is that it marks the end of the beginning of the end for personal computing. In 1981, the IBM PC enabled people like me to get into ePublishing by the fact of putting a real computer on every desk. In 2008 the PCs on desktops across the globe passed 1 Billion, but they will never sell another billion. We all know that after years of talking about the “thin client” environment, the time has now come to hold our programming and storage remotely, and carry around the lightest and slightest of interfacing technologies. Three years ago that was the notebook: since early 2010 it has been the tablet. The earth has truly moved.

But at the heart of all of this there is a contradiction. Despite all the things that came with the PC to make things easier for us (the mouse, the GUI – graphical user interface – the desktop, the floppy disc and the CD-ROM) we were aware that we were doing “proper” computing. Those like me who bought the BBC Micro and failed to teach themselves Basic programming in the early 1980s at least recognized that they were working, at a fixed place and in an office, in a very traditional way. In order to overcome the bandwidth problems of dial-up networking, we rapidly accelerated local storage – a brilliant man called Bela Hatvany walked into my office at Thomson’s Eurolex in 1984, showed me a silver disc, and proceeded to load the European Court of Justice judgements on it. So now we could carry storage around, or send it out to customers from the warehouse, packed like the book products we were familiar with, and pretend that the world had not moved at all. But it had at least begun, and this exposes the contradiction: if the tablet is to be our access to the Cloud, when can we expect the tablet to have all of the functionality we associate with desktop computing, as well as all of the on-the-move features we want to associate with work no longer fixed to workplaces. This has not happened – the executive in the conference room making notes on his iPad invariably has a laptop in his hotel bedroom – and it will never quite happen. Instead better functionality in the Cloud will plug us into commonplace desktop features, while the tablet itself concentrates on linking us with less effort to workplace solutions held in the Cloud. In this way we will attain a bi-focal view of the world: able in one aspect of the screen to use devices to communicate and run functions in networks, while replacing browsing by solutioning – using Apps to resolve content access into answers which can be framed and understood in the tablet context. And it is not Steve Jobs who is entirely driving this: it is the overloaded, overheated world of content itself that dictates that we cannot any longer, to use the popular metaphor, drink from the fire hose. And the corollary of all of this is that native Internet backbone becomes ever more important, at the expense of web services sitting on top of it. How soon before we click on a Cloud Services dashboard?

And as Mr Jobs claimed the Cloud, two other announcements last week suggested the future battlegrounds in those content sectors. In the first, FT.com announced its own app (and, surely co-incidentally, Apple announced a lightening of regulations for publishers, though not the full deal in terms of allowing content vendors to get fundamental information on users). The FT position is admirable. It supports an Apple App available through iTunes. At the same time it supports an app downloadable from the FT website which can be used in any tablet context, including the iPad. While a colleague commented that “a US provincial paper would never have got away with this”, the announcement does show that the attempt by Apple to control and discipline the content marketplace may be beginning to waver. And it also demonstrates, of course, that the FT “gets it” in this generation in a way that it did not in the past, and that it is one of few players who really do. We are on our way to the re-invention of the newspaper as a service: this is a non-stopping express, though since the windows are open (pun intended) some passengers may fall out on the curves.

As this column has said many times, surviving is about being big and getting bigger. So some were non-plussed at the Thomson Reuters announcement that their healthcare interests were to be sold by the end of the year (though they retain Web of Science and its related activities in their IP section). Yet this seems the inexorable consequence of their business logic. While healthcare is still a market full of buzz, with a huge information investment profile, Thomson Reuters were a trailing third in a market where solutions of the type described here as workflow are becoming vital. Without huge investment, or buying WK Health, great content like MicroMedex could not be fully optimized, though Thomson Healthcare have been making some good progress with care provider contracting. As a result of the divestment (and note the wonderful history of Thomson divestments as a guide to industry sentiment), a significant industry consolidation could take place, an existing player or a software vendor could reposition, or a new player with the investment needed could enter the US market.  In current economic circumstances a private equity exit seems less likely than a strategic buyer with a healthy balance sheet. My bet in the past in these pages has been Springer, for which I have been soundly beaten around the head by all parties. We shall see.


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