WE ARE entering a new era of personal computing, which we refer to as the "personal cloud." The personal cloud is the user's expectation to contextually store, sync and share content across devices.
The function and services of personal cloud will not replace the PC or other devices, but will augment them as the online location where consumers keep their content and access it on a contextual basis.
The personal cloud is made up of three elements - consumer, business and government - which will offer both distinct as well as overlapping features for the user.
Some of these features will be unique, such as voter registration for governments, but many others will overlap - offering similar features such as storage, synchronisation and streaming.
At present, the personal cloud will most affect those markets that already have deep and ubiquitous broadband penetration: Either wired, wireless, or both. As broadband growth occurs in emerging markets, personal cloud services will follow close behind and be adopted quickly.
Here is a look at the impact and recommendations for ecosystem and content service providers:
Consumers are moving from a world centred on devices, such as the PC, to personal cloud services as the centre of their digital lives. Ecosystems are now more important than any single device or platform.
While the end-user PC era began slowly and then accelerated, the era of the personal cloud will accelerate even faster. PCs of various sorts had existed for several years when the market was defined in 1981 following IBM's release of the first IBM PC.
By the time Windows 95 was released, the PC was well established as a tool not only for business but also for consumers, and the golden age of the PC had arrived. We see similar patterns emerging in today's market, pointing us toward the sea change that is occurring with the personal cloud.
Change comes slowly in the consumer technology space. It takes a combination of technologies to mature and come together at the correct time in order to drive monumental change. The PC brought one such change, consumer access to the Internet another. Today, the combination of near ubiquitous connectivity, a range of post-PC devices (such as smartphones, media tablets and connected TV sets) and powerful online services are ushering in the next era of the personal cloud.
In this coming era, the PC is no longer dominant but an important device among many, the core ecosystem of a vendor will be of more importance to the consumer than any single device or platform, and ecosystem competition will be centred on personal cloud services.
Cloud providers must harden their solutions to protect the data and users and prevent a backlash against these services; those companies with existing trusted relationships with consumers - such as Apple, Amazon and Google - will have an advantage.
Large platform and OS providers should make personal cloud services a core part of their efforts. Out-of-the-box experiences and core features will no longer satisfy consumer needs or requirements.
Vendors must provide a range of services to consumers to meet the criteria of a complete personal cloud experience. These include online storage, communication tools, games, commerce and media consumption to further drive a personal cloud ecosystem forward.
Consumers will feel less need to leave a given ecosystem if the services are continually enhanced and extended, and additional perceived value will increase both loyalty and frequency of use.
Ideally, single-purpose personal cloud services must not be tied to one specific device or platform and should include a broad selection of devices, including phones, media tablets, PCs and connected TVs.
Failing to adequately deal with the synchronisation of consumer content from device to device and location to location will lead consumers to abandon a personal cloud service.
Controlling the synchronisation experience through personal cloud offerings will be a major factor in winning or losing the battle for services and applications. Although no one vendor will necessarily win the synchronisation experience for all consumer data types (in the sense of one vendor dominating the landscape as Microsoft did in the PC era), consumers will probably be attracted to specific services for key data types such as music, video, office documents, and others, even though those services come from different sources and live on a variety of devices and platforms.
The fact that Apple's iCloud has ramped up to 85 million users (as of last January) is a testament to how easily users could flock to a personal cloud that is easy to use and is properly championed by a vendor. In addition, the sophistication of metadata use to synchronise both consumers use and functionality is crucial.
Synch functionality that uses "agents" will be able to collect metadata, and other user preferences and usage patterns, to preconfigure some of what needs to be synced; we call this predictive synchronisation and believe that more services will begin to take this approach to keep user data up-to-date across devices and platforms. In addition to that, security and privacy must be addressed in a trusted relationship.
Providers of personal cloud services must facilitate superior experiences by enabling seamless and invisible content storage, synchronisation, streaming and sharing as well remembering user state and activity that will transfer from device to device and location to location.
Proper context is a key to seamless synchronisation. Personal cloud services must take into account the different screens and devices from which consumers will be accessing content, and adjust for the proper contextual presentation.
Not all functions will need to be synchronised across all devices. Consumers will use different devices in different ways. For example, connected televisions that offer personal cloud services do not need to include Microsoft Office functionality as a core feature.
Personal cloud apps and services require ubiquitous connectivity to exploit their full potential.
Ubiquitous connectivity and bandwidth are the enablers of the personal cloud and the foundation that all platforms and services will require to function. Consumers have little interest in infrastructure, in terms of technology in and of itself, but they do care about the performance, value and price of these services. The net result is that providers in this space will need to differentiate based on performance, quality of service and tiered consumer pricing models.
Content service providers should take care that consumer network access and infrastructure translates into a quality experience that is consistent across multiple access channels and smart devices.
Ubiquity of service should always be a priority. This can help in both driving their own personal cloud services and in becoming the choice for consumers seeking to leverage these services in the most efficient and reliable ways.
Content service providers should offer different tiers of service to meet the needs of casual users to demanding users in terms of bandwidth, as well as offering options for session, day, week and monthly use without the need for long term contracts.
(Michael Gartenberg is research director in consumer technologies at Gartner Research.)