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September 19, 2012

The Future of Local Storage Is Practically None At All


Stand Back or Your Hard Drive Is Going to Get It

First they came for our floppy drives. Then, they came for our CDs and our DVD drives. It won't be too long until the concept of a hard drive, or any local storage, beyond that needed for temporary offline use, is itself antiquated. After decades of dramatically increasing PC hard disks, from megabytes to terabytes, saving local data is more likely to put you at risk of loss, relative to remote backup, than it is to keep your data safe, helped along by many trends pushing toward cloud storage and applications.

In April of last year, I talked about how I planned to forego the purchase of physical media, disavowing books, CDs, DVDs and other printed materials, when digital would do, and I haven't looked back - getting to my media from any device that recognized my signed-in identity. Meanwhile, as chronicled, starting in early 2010, when I first got a MacBook Air, and accelerated as I've turned toward ChromeOS as my primary device, I have almost entirely stopped the use of desktop applications. If it can't be reached via web browser, it's probably not worth having.

Goodbye Desktop Applications. Your Time Is Past



May's introduction of the latest Samsung Chromebooks (see my review) left me using my Mac only once per day, for a specific task - synchronizing my FitBit. Until recently, FitBit didn't have a completely cloud-capable service, so each night around midnight, after a full day's neglect, I open the Mac, sync the FitBit in the cradle, confirm the data's gone through, and close the Mac again, until the next day. With the recently announced FitBit One series promising wireless syncing to iOS or Android, I'm just one device away from being done.

For the rest of the day, without exception, I am on my Chromebook, or my Android devices. All my music, emails, photos, documents and other web services can be accessed and managed on the cloud through the browser.

Knocking Down Lagging Apps One By One

The evolution of software and its intersection with platforms is an intriguing one. We Mac users in the 1990s and early 2000s occasionally had to make sacrifices, not having access to apps available only on Windows. Similarly, as iOS and Android increased in market presence, there was the occasional app missing from one platform or the other. But over time, practically all applications, or their equivalents, make their way to the top platforms, and while my move to Android more than two years ago came with some apps missing, all the ones I needed quickly followed me there.

No Seriously, Have You Seen Pixlr on the Web? It's Great.

Now the web itself has proven capable enough for almost any task, and reasons why not to go all Web are dramatically reduced, especially the improved capabilities of documents, spreadsheets and presentations in Google Drive, the release of high quality image editing software like Pixlr, and promises that popular desktop applications like Spotify are set to reach the cloud very soon now, to stream music in addition that which you can purchase from Google Play.

Time to Move on From the Desktop and File Mentality

With solid reasons to not go all Web rapidly eliminated, this evolution also brings up the opportunity to revisit old paradigms we've always taken for granted, as how we use our computers and mobile devices has changed.

Consider, for example, the desktop and files metaphor. Decades ago, we adapted our PCs to be similar to those environments we knew offline. The desktop, folders and files all hearken back to this original model. Even the hyperlinks of today's Web follow similar structures with directories and files owned by top level domains, and today's leading cloud storage vendors, including Dropbox and Google Drive, mimic a traditional desktop environment to bring ease of adoption to users migrating from local storage. But this shouldn't always be the case.

While clean directory structures once were enough for me to almost quit a job over a decade-plus ago, machine-generated links to content are good enough, and it's possible we just need to know how content relates to one another, or what you're searching - for example, email, and tags that generate metadata, providing you with what you need even if you don't know exactly where to look.

All Your Computers Are Mine. Seriously.

The notion of this being "my laptop" or "your PC" doesn't even make sense any more if you think about it. All I need is access to my "stuff", and that stuff is tagged to my identity, be it one that is affiliated with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook or any other provider. While Chromebooks have made it most clear that you can sign out of one account and sign in as another and retain access to all your things, the truth is that so long as you are using a leading provider of identity, you should be able to get to all your files, bookmarks, and media from any device with a modern browser. Go ahead, steal my laptop. I'll just get another one that will do the same things and be up and running in minutes.

Kids These Days... They Don't Need Hard Drives

Consider also that my children should never need to use or know about local storage. At ages 4 and 2, my children will enter elementary school in 1 to 3 years. They have been raised with web-connected TVs, tablets and smartphones, have an expectation of anytime access to data, and shouldn't be trained to store data that is tied to any single device. To them, every device has Netflix. To them, every device can get to Google, and anything they want to see, hear or watch can be found by asking Google for the right image or video, instantly - no buffering allowed.

Just two to three years is enough for us to see how rapidly USB thumb drives went from being the hot tradeshow giveaway to now seeming almost completely useless, with online sharing being the norm. Just two to three years was all I needed as a student attending Berkeley in the late 1990s to move from carting a floppy disk across campus to the computer lab for printing my freshman year, to instead email the document to myself as an attachment my junior year.

Oh. So You Don't Have Pervasive High Speed Wireless?

It's easy to sit in Silicon Valley's ivory tower and say that with pervasive high speed Internet, eliminating any dependency on local storage is a brilliant idea. It's easy to overlook potential power outages, cloud disruptions, dependence on third party services, and spotty web. Nobody likes being out of range for phone calls, let alone all your data, and nobody truly wants to be helpless if their account is compromised. Those are not minor and trivial concerns. But neither is ensuring data compatibility as the data is stored on multiple local machines, and backed up to temporary local storage which may or may not be less reliable than a service provider that serves millions or more.

Years ago, it may have seemed silly to move to web-based email instead of desktop applications, and the same could be said for other apps that have now become default on the web - including calendaring, address books, event planning and more. Digital media for entertainment, once the province of physical media delivered to your home or picked up at a retailer, is now accessible anywhere on any device. So too will be your photos, music, documents, and more. I even moved all my family's photos off spinning disk on an array of Macs from the last 4 years and put them on Drive.

The key to staying prepared for the next evolution of computing is to be willing to take a leap of faith - knowledge that you don't need desktop devices when a laptop will do, knowledge that you don't need to have DVDs in your living room when Netflix or iTunes have all you need, and that what you've been used to and taught over decades just might not be entirely the same any more.

Disclosures: I work for Google and yes, Google makes many services that provide for cloud storage and computing, as well as those nice Chromebooks, one of which I gained for free earlier this year and am using right now to make this post (as well as all the screenshots and images in the post, edited in Pixlr).