I’m finally getting back to blogging after spending a couple of months traveling then catching up with work. This week I was invited to speak at a “guru forum” of managers and academics who work in information technology. Among the many issues that were discussed, two conflicting trends were identified. On the one hand many corporate organizations are moving towards cloud services and all-in-one outsourced solutions (Oracle, SAP, IBM, …). On the other hand individuals are moving towards a “bring your own” model, bringing their own computers, e-books, cellphones, iPads and other devices to their workplaces. With the advent of smartphones and social media platforms such as Facebook, computing is becoming more consumer-centric and primarily a means for social interaction, rather than just a tool for specific tasks like word precessing and accounting.
These opposing trends create a disconnect at the workplace between the ability of firms to manage and control information (especially proprietary information) versus the desire to give employees flexibility and freedom in choosing the tools they really want to use. My view is that the trend towards consumer-centric computing will dominate the other paradigm. There is no turning back the preferences of modern information workers who grew up with their iPads, Android phones and Kindles. Companies should embrace rather than fight the trend.
How do we solve this “me versus you” problem? i.e., organizing information on multiple devices in a way that separates private from work and other shared information in an easy but manageable way? Existing solutions are unsatisfactory because they do not adapt to the different and changing contexts that individuals find themselves in. Companies like Apple, SAP and Oracle take a fully integrated approach, allowing you to run everything on their software and leveraging their own cloud solutions, treating each device as a client. Bringing this to the extreme, you can run entire virtual machines from your own device with everything hosted on the service provider, such as via Amazon S3 or OnLive. Unfortunately this is often an all-or-nothing proposition, so while it creates separate contexts, the operation across contexts is not seamless. You’re basically running separate computers (or syncing to separate clouds) from within your own device, and it is slow and clunky to inter-operate between them.
In contrast, other firms like Dropbox provide services that integrate into your existing applications and folders, but end up being highly fragmented especially when it comes to setting permissions and giving access. Each application and each collaborator needs to be authenticated, so coordination can be a hassle. This week my colleague tried to set up a shared Dropbox folder for the faculty members at our school, and it seemed a lot more of a hassle than it needed to be, especially the bit about inviting each user and trying to get them to actually sign up to the Dropbox cloud.
The good news is that the solution of the “me versus you” problem is closer at hand than many might think. The architecture for such a solution already exists in products like Google Circles and VMware but is not yet pervasive. Here’s an example of what one such solution might look like. At present most operating systems support multiple workspaces, but for now they are all tied to the same set of permissions and applications. Well, imagine a future in which each workspace on your device is authenticated to different sets of applications and clouds. For example, your device could include a personal workspace that authenticates to Apple and Dropbox and which contains your personal files, apps and Facebook page. A second workspace could authenticate to your office, with the IT system at your office determining what apps and cloud services are made available and which of these you can transfer across workspaces. A third workspace could be one created by your friend so that when you visit her house, her workspace would appear along with some of the data and services from her home network that your friend is willing to share with you.
A small number of us already have something close to this setup running on our computers by using multiple virtual machines that are active simultaneously. But it isn’t the same thing. I’m thinking of something with much more integration than is available in existing virtual machines and with much less of the “heavy machinery” that is needed to support multiple operating systems on the same machine (the action is in the data and apps, not in the operating system itself anymore). I also have in mind something more dynamic, for example with the ability to seamlessly add or remove workspaces when the context around a person changes. In the example above, if your friend defines a workspace that is shared with you when you visit her, that workspace should actually exist in a virtual sense, and it should slide on and off your various devices in a consistent manner including your smartphone, iPad and notebook computer.
Granted, the ideal solution in my head might be a bit far-fetched. However I suspect it will become prevalent in the next several years. I don’t know what it would cost in terms of implementation and adoption. However, the fundamental issues are of great concern among industry practitioners such at those attending the IT Guru forum, so I suspect that over the next few years entrepreneurial firms will end up exploring solutions and frameworks along these lines.