Please mobile me already!

Foreword — Jobs has spoken

In case you missed it, you should know that everyone has been talking about Steve Job’s “Thoughts On Flash” in the last couple of weeks. This is an important read, not because it talks about what’s currently happening (i.e., the lack of Adobe’s Flash technology in the iPhone, and now the iPad), but rather because Jobs is writing about how Apple (and other Internet big players) are going to position themselves in years to come. Sure, the iPad is sexy, but the changes ahead go much deeper, and announce where Internet business is heading.

Yes, there is a “paradigm shift”

Charles Stross, the science fiction writer whose blog is very much worth reading because of his way to peek into the future and find just the right words to explain it cleverly, reacted and analyzed Jobs’ text, somehow re-introducing the notion of “Web 2.0″. To understand better what Web 2.0 really means, it’s useful to read how Tim O’Reilly coined the term and described it back in 2005 — before it became a buzzword, and especially before people started to confuse it with “you mean MySpace and Facebook?”. His article helps understand how we are smoothly sliding from a world of devices and personal software, into a new decentralized/distributed network of remotely operated services.

In short, remember when your email address was given to you by your Internet Service Provider, and you had to change address and warn all your friends when you moved to another ISP? Then came web-based email (e.g., Hotmail, Gmail) and it became natural to be able to access your mail from any computer, anywhere. Why? Because instead of using a software installed on your computer, you access a service on the web, via a browser. Any browser, on any machine, forever. Meanwhile, instead of downloading the email onto your hard drive then erase it from the server, you merely browse it, and leave it hosted on the server. Again, forever.

Similarly, it has become clear in recent years that Apple is moving from a device business to more of a service business. From a hardware-centric to a content-oriented company. Don’t act so surprised: they have been moving this way since they created the iTunes Music Store and forced the music industry, and then TV networks and movies studios, to face their fears and start selling virtual goods online.

Next, they take care of YOUR stuff

Google announced last November that within a few months you won’t need Microsoft Office anymore, as it claims you will be able to handle most of your documents directly online. With services such as Google Docs, the tools to edit and to host content are getting merged together. Users create documents online, which they can edit from anywhere through a browser. Sounds strange, almost scary, to trust them to keep all your precious files on their servers? Ask yourself: Where are your email messages physically stored right now? For most, the answer is “on the servers of my email provider”, and no one is too worried about it. And all your attached documents too, by the way. So why should it be a problem to get your documents remotely hosted too, if you trust your service provider?

But let’s put aside the touchy subject of personal documents, and look at commercial goods, such as books for instance. The Amazon Kindle and the iPad Bookstore are the most famous devices available to read ebooks, and manage magazines and newspapers subscriptions. Sure, there have been scary (and deliciously Orwellian) stories of book buyers who discovered one day that the distributor censored and pulled away a product from their device, remotely. Keep that in mind to understand how this new distribution system works, but don’t get too upset just yet.

Because the advantage of such a system is that it can also go the other way. Say you lost a actual paper book. The bookstore where you bought it would probably not replace it, because it means they would have to pay for the physical item, and they would have to have previously prepared a system to track their sales and customers, kept an inventory of what you bought, and ensure that you really misplaced it, as opposed to give it to a friend.

However, when goods are digital, it is easy to track them, keep an inventory of what you own, and it’s even free to duplicate them. Amazon or iTunes could easily re-populate your new ebook reader or mp3 player if you replaced the device and didn’t have any backup for example. That is, if you bought your media and media reader from them. Such a service creates then a new level of loyalty that makes the device an extension of the store.

Why do you think Amazon has been dumping the price of their ebooks all along, buying them from publishers a higher price they sell them, and subsidizing the difference? Because they now have 80% of the ebook market that’s why. They certainly made a few bucks with the Kindle, and at the same time, the use of the device itself reinforces the relationship between consumers and the shop/service. It’s all nicely linked together in the end.

The end of personal storage

In this model, you still keep your stuff in your device. Soon, you’ll keep the ownership of your stuff, perhaps even a “disposable” copy of it on your device at first, but you’ll just keep your goods stored somewhere else. And you’ll enjoy the advantages of additional services.

A good example of such a remotely hosted service is MobileMe, currently offered by Apple for /year, which has some great (and some not-so-great) features. MobileMe gives you an email address and keeps your mail, contacts, and calendar information all synchronized across your iPhone, iPad, Mac, PC, and the web automatically. It also lets you publish photos and webpages online, and provides online storage for backup and sharing.

Sounds good, but such features have become quite common nowadays, and some of them are even available for free from competitors like Google, Yahoo!, among others. Everyone, especially pure web companies but not only, want to get you locked into their service obviously.

But where MobileMe still makes a difference, is by allowing subscribers to locate their iPhone or iPad on a map, set a passcode lock remotely in case it’s misplaced, display a message or play a sound on it remotely, and last but not least, protect their privacy by remotely wiping all content off the device. Yes, you understood it right: it’s very powerful, very useful, and obviously, such a backdoor can only be offered by the company who created the device, and controls its distribution. This is where physical devices, digital products, and services, come together and make a difference for the end user. As long as the end user is loyal to the service provider, that is. For example, MobileMe can’t protect your data on a Blackberry. Maybe it could, but it won’t.

Your stuff anywhere

Back to the Kindle and the iPad Bookstore. With MobileMe in mind, it’s easy to imagine that in a very near future you could log into any iPad (for example your friend’s or one provided to you by an airline company) and access all your books, music, magazines and newspapers subscriptions, because the device would simply look at your preferences and settings directly on the centralized server, and tap into your personal library seamlessly. Such a system offers the advantages of not requiring you to even carry your own device, while providing you with generous storage capacity accessible at any time, from a variety of devices. For example, you have the same music in your phone and in your iPad.

The fact is, hard drives are fragile and eventually die. Rich geeks set up a redundant backup system, but most people will be better off relying on a good service provider who will take care of it for them. In the end, you’d rather have a lightweight device in your pocket, while archiving your increasing collections of photos and videos, movies (in increasingly higher quality and file size), music, etc. on some unlimited storage place.

The race is on

Companies who want to get their share of that future cake will need to:

  1. bridge the gap between the media you buy (e.g., Hollywood movies) and the media you create (e.g., home made video), and
  2. offer an all inclusive subscription system (and great software to go with it) to make it convenient, affordable, and logical.

So far, two companies are leading: Google has proven it is serious about documents and is moving into the device as well as mobile and PC operating system businesses, while Apple has shown it can offer a very reliable and safe environment, a ginormous and expanding store, and an expertise in the hardware AND software businesses. Another strong contestant is Amazon, who has established itself as the main competition for shopping and device, but also a leader in hosting, especially when it comes to cloud computing, which it sells as B2B to other web services.

Other companies such as Facebook are of course also in the race, trying their best to offer some edge over the competition, but it is already quite clear who has the advantage so far. In the end, the higher up you are in the food chain, the more control you will have of the business. Devices, networks, operating systems, browsers, and storage are the trump cards.

The tipping point will be reached when someone will offer a way to automatically backup of all our existing stuff, in a 100% safe and trustable way, allowing us to keep a copy all the content of our local hard drives safe in the cloud. Then, the next natural step will be to get rid of our hard drives altogether, essentially making our devices act as mere terminals, coming full circle to the beginnings of personal computing, with a monthly fee (or free ad-supported option) to Apple, Google, or [insert your favorite front-runner here].

© 2023 Yves Bennaïm