Amit Chawla is CEO of Funambol. Mr Chawla was most recently CEO of Agito Networks, and previously CEO of NexVerse Networks which merged with a division of ECI Telecom to form Veraz Networks. Mr Chawla’s earlier experience included several positions at Nortel Networks
Cloud-based digital lockers and media are poised for rapid growth. The six keys of distributed metadata, storage flexibility, smart cloud sync, cloud contact syncing, open access and developer support will be paramount in optimizing the experience for mobile users and realizing their potential.
Cloud-based digital lockers (services that enable users to store all their digital media in one spot and access it from anywhere at any time) and media are current battlefields in the mobile industry. What's interesting is that the companies providing digital locker services are each coming at it from vastly different perspectives, with the result that each service has its own unique strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies based on its specific business goals.
For example, the consumer electronics company, Apple, is promoting iCloud to tie Apple-made devices together wirelessly and to differentiate their devices from competitors. Google, the 800-pound gorilla of online, provides a plethora of cloud media and digital locker-like services, partly in connection with its Android mobile OS, but mainly to keep users available for Google’s continual pursuit of online and mobile advertising. Amazon, the e-tailer and provider of IT cloud services, recently introduced its cloud drive and music services, primarily as a channel to sell more digital goods across mobile devices. Facebook is ramping up its cloud offerings for mobile, as it sees mobile as its ticket to the next hundreds of millions of users, which feeds its monetization engine. There are also upstarts, such as Dropbox and white-label solutions, such as Funambol, that provide additional digital locker alternatives for end users and companies in the mobile industry.
As the clamor to provide compelling cloud media and digital locker services intensifies, here are six keys for optimizing the cloud-based digital locker experience for mobile users.
A primary raison d'être for a digital locker is to make it easy for users to access their data and media – both user-generated and commercial – across all of their devices, as well as to maintain a backup copy, in case they lose their original version or get a new device. These devices could be smartphones, tablets, PCs/Macs, Internet-connected TVs, cars and more.
There are numerous challenges and considerations in making this cross-device access easy, however, not the least being the major differences in devices that cause real-world constraints such as devices having vastly different amounts of storage and capabilities to play certain types of media.
As such, it does not make sense to try to sync all of one's data and media across all of one's devices, as this is neither a physical possibility nor a practical approach. At the same time, it is also not wise to require that users centralize and maintain all of their data and media in the cloud and to expect that Internet connectivity will always be available to access or stream these data and media. Internet connectivity is not always available, cost-effective or fast enough, especially for rich media such as video that consists of large files.
An intermediate approach is one that aggregates the metadata of a user's data and media, regardless of its physical location, and distributes the metadata across one's devices. Metadata describes other data and gives information about a certain item's content. This collection of metadata is like a 'personal Google' that searches for and indexes all personal data and media that resides on a mobile phone, PC and online services. The metadata can be distributed across all of one's devices where it can be searched and browsed, online or offline. For small-sized data, such as PIM information (e.g. contacts and calendars), it makes sense to fully sync and distribute this across devices (because the cost is low), but for large-sized data, such as rich media (e.g. videos, photos, music) and big files, it is better to just aggregate and sync metadata and provide thumbnails or previews, as long as the user has the ability to sync the desired data or media to a particular device for local or offline use. The use of distributed metadata for cloud digital lockers will likely prevail as a technique to improve usability for mobile users, but at the same time, implementing it is not easy so it will take time before users see it as part of most digital locker services.
Cloud services that require users to centralize all of their data and media in one digital locker or personal cloud account are unlikely to be as popular as those that allow flexibility. Most people are not organized enough to keep all of their data and media in one place, and even if they were, data and media often need to be used by other systems and hence must reside in those systems. The reality for most people is that their data and media are strewn about in many different places. There is no one universal digital locker that can meet all their needs, for numerous reasons, such as no single system supports all the types of data, devices, sharing, integration with other systems, preferred commercial content stores, etc.
As a result, a cloud service that lets people keep their data and media in their preferred or default location, while allowing it to be available as part of a cloud service and across one's devices, is likely to be more used than services that do not.
Smart cloud sync
Smart cloud sync refers to a collection of techniques that make cloud services 'just work' the way non-technical mobile users expect. For example, it enables people to continuously read a document or view a video across multiple types of devices. For instance, someone could be reading an article on a mobile phone on a train and then resume on a PC at work or a tablet or TV at home. This is all accomplished seamlessly and invisibly. While this syncing may seem intuitive, it is especially difficult to achieve with mobile-oriented cloud services. This is due to the extreme fragmentation of mobile devices compared with PCs. There are orders of magnitude more differences and complexities with mobile phones and connected devices, which makes it impossible for any cloud service to support all devices.
Examples of smart cloud sync include transcoding so video can play on devices that support different formats, and deduplication so that although the data and media may physically reside in multiple locations, for expediency and legal reasons, only one version appears in the metadata. In this way, search results do not show multiple instances that could confuse users. Another example is appropriate lossless compression occurs so that a high definition video is not synced to a device that can only play standard definition, as that would be a waste of bandwidth, storage and power. Smart cloud sync results in the 'it just works' experience that users expect. The current crop of mobile cloud services has a long way to go to reach this ideal.
Cloud contact syncing
Cloud contact syncing allows users to keep their own independent copy of their contact information, culled from all the places where these data live, such that users are not subject to the whims of changing privacy policies of third-party services. Contact syncing is essential for mobile cloud services as it forms the organic foundation for access control and sharing of one's data and media. A cloud service that does not aggregate and normalize a user's contacts across all sources is not only lacking a fundamental component but will result in reduced usability.
Users will naturally be suspicious of and avoid mobile cloud services that lock them into a particular technology. An example is PC file backup services that provide initial free storage, to get people hooked, and charge a teaser rate for more space. After a while, some services significantly increase their prices for additional storage, which alienates users who then switch to other services. Another example is cloud services that require users to buy commercial media such as music and movies only from their own online store or that make it onerous to use media purchased elsewhere. The more barriers to openness and free access erected by a mobile cloud service, the fewer people will use it.
As people increasingly use personal clouds to access their data and media across diverse devices, it makes sense that developers would want to create apps that leverage this data and media to provide innovative capabilities. To allow this, cloud services need to provide APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that balance the need for programmatic access while maintaining strict user privacy and security. Although this may not seem difficult, it is hard to achieve for several reasons, such as maintaining the quality of service for a digital locker and ensuring that apps work well across numerous devices.
In summary, cloud-based digital lockers and media are poised for rapid growth. The six keys of distributed metadata, storage flexibility, smart cloud sync, cloud contact syncing, open access and developer support will be paramount in optimizing the experience for mobile users and realizing their potential.