Screens, Storage & Networks

I’ve been thinking a bunch about platforms lately, and how they’re evolving very very quickly. Generally, there are two categories of thing that people talk about as platforms. Traditionally, they’ve been computer operating systems: Windows, OS X & Linux, now iOS & Android. Lately people are talking about cloud platforms: services like EC2, but also web services with APIs that other apps are built to integrate with.

But more and more, that’s not the way I’m thinking about my own systems; as devices proliferate at my own home, and as I tend to use tiny connected computers in more numerous and varied contexts.

I’ve been interested in what I call “4 screen & a cloud” products for a while: products that help us unify and take advantage of our laptop + phone + tablet + tv — but it all became a little clearer to me a few weeks when a wave of devices entered the house all at the same time. In the space of a few weeks, I upgraded to an iPad2, got a Samsung Tab to experiment with Android Tablets, got an Android phone in addition to my iPhone, and got a WebOS phone from the D9 conference. So we had all those devices in the house, plus our iMac, Kathy’s set of devices, and my mom’s as well, since she was visiting. Oh, and 3 Kindles between the three of us. Screens were everywhere.

Now, I’m the first to recognize that we’re somewhat atypical in our technology consumption in normal times; add to that the devices that I’ve picked up lately because of work and my house is a jumble of operating systems, devices and power adapters. Exciting!

When you get that many screens and devices, what happens is interesting: when you want to do something, communicate with someone, remember something, schedule an appointment, read a book, or whatever, you just pick up whatever screen is nearest to you and work from that.

Well, you do that if you can. Because in our current platform chaos, not all devices are fungible, not all activities are available from all platforms.

So that got me thinking some about what I need, and where, and in what contexts and on what devices, and now I think about platforms this way: I have a set of screens, a set of stuff, and a set of people that I want to do things with — and I want those sets available to me wherever & whenever I am.

By screens, I mean something more than just pixels: I really mean input & output systems, of which screens are the most visible parts; really it should probably be screens, sensors & speakers. In other words, it’s the displays of each system, the audio systems, and the ways that we indicate intent, be it typing, swiping, speaking, remote-button-puching, smiling, waving, running, or just being.

By storage, I mean something more than just bits: while Dropbox and iCloud and Clouddrive are important, I want to do more than just store and share my files with others. It’s about more than having a place to put my music. It’s about having the context of my life: my apps, my reading material, my history of shopping & interest intent. It’s really the things I’m creating, consuming, sharing, saving, working on and just thinking about. One of the things that’s probably non-obvious about this formulation is that for this to work, the storage is going to be pretty keyed to my identity. Without knowing something about who I am, it won’t work.

And by network, I mean something more than just my Facebook graph: what’s becoming clear is that we’ve all got many and diverse groupings in our lives, ranging from the very intimate groups of a nuclear family to the wide-ranging groupings of Twitter followers. The short version, though, is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that, just like in the offline world, people online want to do things with each other. Shocking, I know.

That’s the definition of platform that’s relevant to me: a combination of screens, storage and networks that help me do my work and live my life. The companies that see that true platforms transcend any one particular technology stack will be the ones that prosper — you can already see some interesting ones emerge.

As a side note, I think screens, storage & networks is one way to look at the landscape of the giants competing: it’s where Apple, Google, Facebook & Amazon are slugging it out (and to some extent it’s the evolution now of my old stomping ground, Mozilla). I would argue that each of the giants has a super strong position in 1 or 2 of the three areas, but none has a lock on all three, and most of the interesting initiatives of each are about strengthening the places where they’re historically weak.

Apple is obviously terrific at screens, okay at storage, and not very good at networks.

Google’s now strong at screens (although probably not as strong as Apple) and could be great at storage, and finally has a credible start on networks.

Facebook is incredibly strong at networks, has some weakness in screens, and is pretty good with storage (at least for things like photos).

And Amazon is very strong on storage, weak at networks, and weak (at the moment) on screens.

I’d argue that their relative strengths and weaknesses are  important for startups to understand as well, as that gives you a bit of a map of one set of opportunities.

Anyway, that’s how I’m thinking about things lately. What do you think?

10 comments

  1. I’m atypical for this industry. I don’t do smartphones or tablets. I’ve primarily got one device, my light-weight laptop. It’s bulkier than a tablet and certainly than a phone. It’s also really convenient to have one capable input device with an solid screen, decent local and remote storage, and one piece of software — Firefox, that connects all of these pieces together.

    I’ve tried smartphones and I’ve begun playing with tablets. Managing across even two major screens is so incomplete and difficult for me that I’m just not willing to let myself come to depend on it.

    I demand more and better from this industry before I’ll take that plunge! ;D

    I see lots of people in the Valley with three or four, or even 5! devices they’re trying to manage across and I’m not terribly envious of that.

    Being a Luddite isn’t very cool and perhaps I’m a bit less efficient than everyone around me, but I manage OK. That is why I wonder if over the next decade or so the world will settle in with something closer to your 4 screens or my 1 screen.

    One of the two big factors that will determine if we end up closer to one or closer to four will be whether or not the hardware/software/service providers will actually get the “4 screen & a cloud” right. So far it’s not even close.

    I don’t think it’s the technology that’s the issue. It seems that it’s more the unwillingness of those major vendors to put the user’s clear interest in interoperability ahead of their own interests in fully capturing users.

    The other factor, I think, will be whether or not enough people are willing to bind their lives and work to what I consider to be a pretty half-baked set of currently available solutions while it all improves. I’m not convinced that we’ve reached a critical mass of people who want or need more than one solid device and if we don’t reach it, there may not be enough interest (money) to support the remaining work required to get it right.

    Or maybe I’m completely wrong and I just don’t like computers as much as everyone else :-)

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the world amazingly switched back to native application development even with the proliferation of devices. Continuing your breakdown, the Web as a platform pretty much nails network (that’s kind of its thing), but it is rather weak on screens and local storage. Mobile web applications aren’t using the basic set of widgets for mobile devices, and they aren’t even locally hosting their UI, let alone user data. So yeah, to the extent that the mobile Web experience is losing right now, it’s because it only has 1/3 attributes of a successful platform.

  3. I have to admit I wasn’t following it until the end pieces you threaded together with Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Then, it clicked. I haven’t thought about this level of convergence, but some immediate reactions or questions would be:

    -The author of “The Facebook Effect” asserted that Facebook is the one company that could legitimately bully Apple. You sort of touch on this at the end. I wonder how that could happen in practice?

    -How does iOS5 help Apple in storage, such as with iCloud and paying a subscription to access storage on multiple screens (and possibly a TV) play into this picture?

    -Do you think these four companies will build or buy to address the weaknesses you point out?

  4. > I don’t think it’s the technology that’s the issue. It seems that it’s more the unwillingness of those major vendors to put the user’s clear interest in interoperability ahead of their own interests in fully capturing users.

    I think things can get worse: some of these big players have understood that none of them will win the whole market. So they are teaming to make them interoperable, locking out any other manufacturer, especially any small newcomer, from the home network.

    If something like the Digital Living Network Alliance® (http://www.dlna.org/ ) get momentum (and they start doing active marketing about compliant devices), the open network at home will probably be a dream of the past.

    You’ll either buy DLNA-aware devices (screens & input devices like cameras) from them, w/ good interop (and DRM-controlling the media you have), or other devices locked out of the user-friendly interface.

    (You have to pay to read the spec (w/ NDA I believe), you have to pay to use it, you have to be co-opted to participate to its further development).

    I would like to have an home network, like a home cloud, where devices from any vendors could be plugged easily and interop. Controlling my TV set from my tablet, taking my tablet in the garden in case I get a phone call, or getting it on my computer where I’m working right now. All my data shared between by device (but not leaving my home).

  5. I’m in a similar situation – my home has many more screens than people and we’ve struggled over and over with limits of the platforms in everyday use. In fact, my six old year just asked me to explain to him again why he can’t access his favorite laptop game (and related saved data) using one of our tablets or personal media players or phones, etc.

    Basic portability and interoperability remain a huge problem in the connected home and will remain an issue for some time due to conflicting technology and business strategies of the four biggies that you named, plus many others that you didn’t (e.g., Microsoft, Comcast, Time Warner, DirecTV, Samsung, Sony, etc.).

    But beyond this, few companies have really thought through “four screens and a cloud” use cases and product/business implications. Multi-screen home life done well from an app design perspective requires mixing an understanding of user context and intent with device “fungibility”, user identity/privacy, interest/content graph, and social graph. Not all screens are equal in capability, not all home use cases are personal or private, not all social interactions or interest areas related to home use cases are captured by Facebook or Google.

    There are huge opportunities for startups to capture turf in these areas as connected devices proliferate and people’s digital lives naturally extend beyond the desktop to the living room or the backyard or to more complex “on the move” use cases, and beyond single user to family and groups (both IRL and virtual).

  6. This is absolutely right, been thinking the same thing. There are more screens too, at least one for my car and one about me (Garmin watch/computer for running and biking but really performance and health).

    Screens, storage, and networks sums it up nicely.

    You might need to turn this into a talk. What is the ideal here for consumers? The current pitfalls for users today are pretty rough. If you take buying one song or taking one photo and run it through screens, storage, and network gauntlet, the amount of options are pretty crazy.

  7. John,

    Great analysis.

    Being in the Audio Video industry for years, I have see the steady increase of the importance of networks and storage as it relates to one of the four screens you mentioned, the TV.

    An AV industry veteran and CEDIA trainer Rich Green was the first one I heard use the “Screens and a Cloud” term (then it was 3 screens as the tablet had not emerged yet) and the Screen Futures book is another great example of where devices are heading.

    One piece of the puzzle you mentioned is the personalization of storage. As it relates to screens, it seems the leading notion from folks I have known and spoken with on the subject here is that your personal profile will soon be stored in a new place, a personal token like a ring, necklace etc. It will be your key to screens everywhere. Example: You pick up my phone (screen) from my desk and as you do, your contacts, numbers, and media from the cloud are all available on that screen. You make a call on your account, your caller ID pops up on the other end, etc. You put it down, I pick it up, and it has all my info again.

    All very exciting and one way and concerning in another. Great read, thanks.

    Mark C

  8. @teoli
    You mentioned DLNA, also see

    DECE (look at the list of members listed here)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Entertainment_Content_Ecosystem

    and their new move to create a system

    Ultraviolet
    http://www.uvvu.com/

  9. This was interesting to think about. I’ve always wondered whether Apple might eventually acquire Twitter since it would address their weakness with “networks” (and they certainly have enough cash to do so).

    In any case, I too am surrounded by screens but am also finding that many of my electronic devices are converging…i.e. I no longer have a TV or DVD player because I can watch most TV shows on my computer or iPad (via Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes). I use runkeeper on my iPhone to track my runs instead of my Garmin watch. I no longer need a dedicated radio, stereo or CD player (remember those?!) because I listen to music on Pandora, Spotify, and various other music services (which are available on all three screens). I don’t have an alarm clock anymore because I use my phone as my alarm. I’m guessing my various cameras will soon be replaced by my phone as well. Not to mention the countless non-electronic objects those screens are replacing (books, magazines, games, toys, notebooks, maps, boxes of holiday cards & photos, calendars etc)

    So, I’m finding that the number of devices and objects I used to own are slowly converging into 3 – my computer, phone and tablet. (yes, I also have different permutations of those 3 for testing but I don’t think those really count :)

  10. Hey, John.

    (I wasn’t sure of the best way to write this: bombshell followed by explanation and context, or expository lead-in ending with my main point? I decided to take the latter approach, since I think the differences of vocabulary makes it have less of the bombshell feel, were I to take the other approach.)

    In your post, you chose to use “storage” as the one word stand-in for the specific concept you’re trying to get across. Here’s what you wrote to try to explain to the reader what you really mean when you say “storage”:

    By storage, I mean something more than just bits […] It’s about having the context of my life: my apps, my reading material, my history of shopping & interest intent. It’s really the things I’m creating, consuming, sharing, saving, working on and just thinking about.

    Here’s something that Alan Kay wrote:

    Though [the personal computer] will have considerable local storage and will do most computing locally, it will spend a large percentage of its time hooked to various large, global information utilities which will permit communication with others of ideas, data, working models, as well as the daily chit-chat that organizations need in order to function.

    So Kay defines “information utilities” by using it in context. (Although it’s not clear from above, he does view “informations utilities” as definite things; he wasn’t just using the phrase in a descriptive, one-off way. He goes on to talk more about them.) In the sense Kay means it, I think it would be fair to say that the local storage he mentions is not outside the umbrella of what defines information utilities. The local storage is one instance.

    We can probably agree that taking a collection of Kay’s “information utilities” (maybe all of them), gives us your “storage”.

    This all appears in the context of one of Kay’s forward-looking impressions of the future (“A Simple Vision of the Future”[1]). In it, Kay claims that a few essential aspects need to be recognized in the future by everyone who hopes to be or get serious about the business of personal computing. Here’s the neat part. Like you, he sees three of them:

    The Main Points of This Vision
    […]
    Personal Computers, Communications Links, and Information Utilities are the three critical components of a Xerox future.
    […]
    Xerox must take these several points seriously if it is to survive and prosper in its new business are [sic] of information media.

    So not only did Kay feel that there were these requirements that need addressing and concluded with the same number of them as you, but he decided they were the same things as you’ve written about.

    1. I can’t actually find the original paper on the Web, only snippets he included for commentary in another paper, “The Early History of Smalltalk”.