Thinkertry

Thinking About a Local, Personal iCloud

January 9, 2012
Design · Favorites · Future · Tech

The Spark

Engadget Mobile on a new iOS & Android app update from SugarSync (a Dropbox competitor):

In the latest version, the company has applied its AutoSync technology to videos, which means that all media files can now be synced to the cloud and pushed to linked computers without user intervention. As this could involve a significant amount of data, AutoSync Videos works only over WiFi, and users may select from three compression qualities based on their desire for picture quality or upload speed.

I don’t think uploading videos to a service like iCloud or Sugarsync and then downloading them to your other devices is the right solution. It works for photos very nicely, but because videos are so much larger than their single-framed brethren the uploading/downloading process is nowhere near as quick, and cloud storage space is also an issue. The compression stuff SugarSync is offering is kind of a way to work around these problems, but if you’re trying to watch a video you just took with your phone on a larger screen (which you probably are) that compression will make your video look like crap. Nobody wants to look at crap.

The Fix

This is something that newer, faster wireless tech is capable of fixing (which we’re sure to see a lot of at CES this week). If your iPhone, iPad, and Mac could “sense” when they’re near each other (or on the same WiFi network), they could establish a direct linkage (an ad-hoc network connection) and transfer those videos from your phone to your other devices without travelling all the way to Apple’s servers first. It would feel just as instantaneous as Photostream, and that’s a good thing. Videos would be archived in iPhoto or in the Videos folder on a PC, and (eventually when Flash storage becomes cheaper), your iPad or other tablets as well.

None of the above is really new: gadgets can “sense” when they’re on the same WiFi network (see iTunes WiFi sync), they can establish direct ad-hoc connections and bypass wireless routers (see AirDrop), and with newer, faster wireless chips like the 802.11ac “5G WiFi” ones that Broadcom is making, transferring videos directly between devices won’t feel very slow at all. These pieces are rapidly coming together, and in 2012 I expect to see a lot more of this kind of inter-device communication.

The weird thing is this: doesn’t the above sound like a local, personal iCloud that cuts out the middleman (Apple)? If, within the next couple of years, syncing videos between devices could feel just as fluid and quick as Photostream without the involvement of Apple’s servers, wouldn’t that be the best solution for syncing media between devices? There’s no guarantee that nationwide bandwidth speeds will be significantly faster in 2014, and with data caps looming on the horizon, something like this might even become impossible if Apple tried to sync videos via their iCloud servers.

Maybe a local, personal iCloud is inevitable.

Clarification

When I say a “local, personal iCloud is inevitable”, I’m not saying that Apple is going to kill off iCloud as it is today and start selling a 512GB SSD with a cloud-shaped aluminum enclosure in 2014. No. That doesn’t make any sense. The things that iCloud does today (Backup, App sync, iBooks, Calendar, Contacts, Mail, etc.) belong on Apple’s servers. The lights will (pretty much) always be on at Apple’s server farms, and that kind of reliability is really important when it comes to backing up your device’s settings, data, and apps. As long as you’ve got the switch for “iCloud Backup” set to On, your phone’s soul pretty much has eternal life in Apple’s shiny little iCloud heaven, and it won’t die when a hard drive fails.

The biggest problem with iCloud, Sugarsync, Dropbox and any other off-site server farm is, actually, the same thing: the fact that it’s off-site. Crappy bandwidth is still (and will continue to be) an issue for a lot of people for the foreseeable future, and if wireless tech is capable of creating a a silky smooth iCloud-like experience for your entire photo/video collection while at home in the next couple of years, I think that’s what we’re going to start seeing. Even if limited bandwidth, data caps and storage limits were magically gone, many families wouldn’t want to store every single photo and home video they’ve ever taken “in the cloud”. Though the cloud is likely far more protected than the family’s home network, they’ll insist on keeping their private memories within the confines of their own abode. Oh sure, some people wouldn’t care about their privacy at all, but should a server farm in North Carolina ever store the collective memories of even 10% of the United States’ population? No. One freak hurricane/tsunami/earthquake combo and it could be The Dark Ages (for some people) all over again if the company doesn’t plan things out well enough. Histories could be erased. Boom. Gone.

… Alright, so hopefully that clarified this thought up a bit: iCloud is not (and never should be) a storage solution for entire personal media collections, making a local, personal iCloud-like experience an inevitability that’ll happen within the next couple of years. How will tech companies make this happen? CES 2012 should reveal a number of different approaches, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the new technologies that’ll make this possible while I’m there.

The Possibilities (Brainstorming)

I have a few ideas about what a local, personal iCloud might be like in a few years, but I suspect that I’ll have even more to write about once CES 2012 is over. For now, here are a few roughly-organized pieces to mull over as you read CES news. Some of them are under-developed and a bit dopey, but a few of them are already being talked about at CES. If any of these spark some ideas of your own, feel free to Tweet or Email them.

So there’re a few ideas. There’s still a ways to go to make a local, personal iCloud a reality, but the pieces are quickly falling into place to make it happen. I don’t think it’ll be long before creating an extremely quick, reliable, and functional inter-device network is as easy as sliding a digital switch and typing in a password. No wires required.