The idea of personal computing is changing. Whereas people previously used a PC as their primary computing device, they now own multiple devices, which means their data is not in one place. Cliff Saran speaks to Forrester Research principal analyst Frank Gillett about the demise of personal computing.
According to Gillett, computing used to be very simple. "People would access one or two primary services, via an x86 PC running Windows, and they only had a few bits of online information to [manage], such as My Yahoo," he says.
"Today, users have a work computer that they may take home, they have one or two personal computers at home, together with a smartphone, and they have a growing range of products such as a smart TV, personal navigation device and online gaming console."
On top of this, people use services such as iTunes, have a Facebook account for social networking, use a Flickr account for photos, and store online Word documents. They may also have online back-up services.
"So we have many devices in our lives and use many services," Gillett says. "It has become quite difficult to figure out where information is located, which makes it quite difficult to share information easily."
Another question users are asking is how to preserve information over time. "We are now putting things into electronic form that we would like to preserve for a lifetime. How do you keep up with the different file formats?"
Building a personal cloud
To solve these problems, Gillett believes a replacement for the operating system will emerge. He says that in the past users would have organised everything on their machine using the operating system, which in the majority of cases was Windows. "Operating systems are no longer the primary organising principle. I believe we will end up with a group of things that I call the 'personal cloud'."
In Gillett's vision, there will be federated online services and devices that work together to help users organise, access and share information contained in disparate databases across the internet. For this to work, there will need to be a primary broker - companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. But he says banks may even play the role of primary broker in some cultures.
Gillett believes services will be federated. So people will use Facebook Connect, Microsoft Passport or their Google password to log into different sites and enable information sharing between different service providers.
Such information sharing will not be restricted to consumer sites, according to Gillett. "In certain industries, like financial services, it is likely you will have to give your employer significant access to your personal cloud, so that they can conduct their due diligence."
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He says products are already starting to appear, such as Mozy and Carbonite, which cater for online back-up. Others, such as Gist, share e-mail information. Gist copies users' online e-mail inboxes to Gist services, and based on their e-mail contacts, shows the user connections on Facebook and Twitter, among others.
While the problem and the online services that have evolved seem very consumer-orientated, Gillett says Gist enables users to bring together their work and personal life by creating a way to understand the relationships between the people they e-mail from multiple e-mail accounts, so that they can see when someone they deal with in their personal life is relevant to a work project.
"SugarSync and DropBox help you keep a copy of your information separate from your computer and make sure the information you upload is available on multiple machines," he says. "And there is the xmarks service, which lets you synchronise your bookmarks."
According to Gillett, the idea of the 'personal cloud' will be a reinvention of the term 'personal computing'. "Tablets such as the Apple iPad represent the start of a new era in personal computing. The concept of the browser and traditional PC operating system, such as MacOS and Windows, has reached its limit. We are beginning to see the limitations of computing. It is time to start over."
Gillett warns that this change in the way computers are used will be "a long, painful process". He says the personal cloud will create a bridge between operating system-based computing and the more service-oriented approach to IT.
Frank Gillett discusses the role of the personal cloud: