The Personal Cloud

In 1994, BYTE Magazine ran the first big cover story on cloud computing: The Network with Smarts. Although we included a sidebar called Don’t Write Off The Internet, which noted that the newly-minted Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol might be an enabler of electronic commerce, our story wasn’t about the Internet. Rather it was about AT&T’s PersonaLink and IBM’s Intelligent Communications. Both were networks based on the sorts of agents that science fiction had taught us to expect. Our agents would watch us, learn our patterns, help us manage our data, and negotiate with agents representing other people and organizations.

Tellingly, the word advertising appears nowhere in that story. Customers weren’t going to be the product; they wouldn’t submit to surveillance in exchange for the use of free services. Instead they’d subscribe to paid services that would enable them to be more powerful actors in a connected world.

The story hasn’t played out that way, at least not yet. The cloud platform has become a real option for companies needing managed pay-as-you-use IT capacity. But you have to squint hard to see the emerging personal cloud. That future is already here, as William Gibson would say, but it’s unevenly distributed.

I see signs of the personal cloud in services like Dropbox, Evernote, and Flickr. You can use them for free, or you can pay for higher capacity and enhanced customer service. But the personal cloud also arises from a way of thinking about, and using, any of the services the web provides.

Consider the case of a friend’s mother-in-law, an author with a new website who wondered about its promotional reach. My friend ran some searches for her name on Twitter and Google, then loaded the RSS feeds for those queries into Google Reader. “Voila!” he said. “Her personal PR aggregation network was born. She didn’t know it was possible. It’s like having personal agents watching everything that goes on and sending you the information.”

Five years ago I retired from the tech punditocracy. Nowadays I work for Microsoft, using its enterprise cloud to bootstrap one particular kind of personal cloud: a calendar system that will empower my friend’s mother-in-law to promote her book tours in the same way that his PR aggregator empowers her to monitor her web presence.

My calendar project explores themes central to a larger vision of the personal cloud. It’s partly about cloud services that we use — sometimes for free, sometimes as subscribers. But it’s also about a set of principles that govern how the web works, and a way of thinking that enables us to make the web work for us. We can all be web thinkers and web makers. In this column, on most Fridays, I’ll view the evolving cloudscape through that lens.