The device is the conduit; the cloud is the platform

June 8, 2011 | Leave a comment

The other day, Steve Jobs stood up and announced iCloud, which replaces the PC as the hub in the iOS device ecosystem, demoting it to just another device. You no longer need to have a PC to activate or synchronize an iPhone or an iPad. This is right, and proper, and in some ways long overdue.

Meanwhile, Nintendo announced Wii U, which connects to your TV like virtually every home game console before it, but also has touchscreens embedded in the controllers. You can move a game from the TV to a controller in mid-flow, for example if someone wants to watch TV. It’s not a stretch to think that someone might be able to watch a streamed TV show on a controller while someone plays a game on the television.

A few days earlier, Microsoft previewed Windows 8′s new interface:

“It’s going to run on laptops, it’s going to run on desktops, it’s going to run on PCs with mouse and keyboard,” says Microsoft’s Jensen Harris after demonstrating the Windows 8 interface in the company video below. ”It’s going to run on everything.”

We’re moving towards a very different paradigm for personal computing. In this connected future, more than ever before, the device is a conduit. You can consume the content or applications that you want, when you want, where you want, on the device you want; content, data and applications are all untethered to any particular object.

This doesn’t have to be any less secure, any less powerful or any less customizable than what you’re already doing. Most consumers will get their computing through Apple and Microsoft, as they already do (Google have ChromeOS, but unless there are major, secret features primed for release, it suddenly looks small-scale compared to the alternatives). Linux users will continue to run Linux – on their PC, on their phone and on their personal open source clouds.

Importantly, virtually all of the cloud platforms on the market have some kind of web technology component (you’re going to be able to build Windows 8 apps in HTML and JavaScript, for example); it’s pretty clear where all of this is going.

I’m writing and posting this blog post on a six hour flight. The Internet is increasingly everywhere; by moving to the cloud, we’re allowing for lower up-front device costs backed up by ongoing subscriptions. The platform providers are going to do very well out of this. Whereas in the current paradigm they capture value by locking users into application compatibility bubbles (Windows apps won’t run on Mac OS X, etc), in the cloud-based future, the lock-in comes from who runs the cloud servers. When Bill Gates started out, his vision was of a computer on every desk running Microsoft software; if he was starting out today, his vision might be a connected device in every pocket running on the Microsoft cloud.

Although this is a step forward in my opinion, there are dangers. Think about how “cloud services” as we’ve known them to date (web tools like Facebook) have monetized; they mine user data. As we put more and more sensitive information into the cloud, the challenge will be to maintain ownership over our information, maintain privacy over our activity, and to ensure that no one company gets to control this brave new world.