We Have Personal Clouds, Now We Need Family Clouds

on April 6, 2012

Prior to the launch of iCloud last year I wrote a column looking at ways that iCloud might work well for families not just individuals. I have a houseful of Macs and other iOS devices and I like to keep them in sync. The problem is they aren’t all mine. Some are my kids and some are my wife’s. There are digital assets that we own that are communal and shared and there are ones that are personal. I had hoped that iCloud would address these issues more fully than it currently does but unfortunately iCloud is designed to be more a personal cloud than a communal one. It is the communal or family cloud that I think needs to be addressed.

Synchronization is at the foundation of any good personal cloud. If I have a multitude of connected devices which I use regularly I want them all to stay in sync. The power of this lies in software that contains what we call a change and detect engine. That means that when a change is made on one device, it makes a change across all devices. Take a photo on one device, it is already on the others. Buy a song on one device, it is already on the others. Edit a document on one device it is already on the others, etc. This solution has manifested itself in the marketplace for quite some time but only recently has it been any good. Personal clouds are evolving nicely but we need hardware and software makers to start thinking more communally as well.

Communal Clouds

One of the things that needs to be pointed out about personal clouds is that they only matter when you have more than one connected device which you use on a regular basis. If I only used one personal computing product, I wouldn’t really have a need to keep it in sync with other devices. But once you get a desktop/ notebook, smart phone and or tablet then the cloud data synchronization becomes important. This is also true with communal clouds.

When only one member of the family has multiple computing products then the notion of the person cloud works. But once several members of a family start getting connected devices then the problem grows. Link that up with the reality that not all family members share a same roof and you can see how a communal cloud could be of value.

There is certain data that is communal and of value to a larger group and there is certain data that is valuable to just the person. A solution in the market needs to exist that makes communal data sync as easy as personal data sync.

For Apple, they have built iCloud with mostly the personal cloud in mind. There are of course ways to sync libraries of photos or other digital data but they are mostly manual processes. iTunes library sync is great and to some degree. Home Sharing is a good start but what about photos for example? Perhaps some of the most communal content in any family ecosystem is photos and currently keeping photo libraries in sync across a number of devices and iCloud accounts in the family is a pain. My wife constantly complains that none of our photos are ever on her computer because I download them all to mine. My iCloud account helps me to a degree but she has her own iCloud account and both act and sync independently of each other.

Other areas of shared sync that could be of use are things like family calendar, chores or to do lists, family documents or spread sheets which can be worked on collaboratively– just to name a few.

Interestingly this is a concept Microsoft has actually marketed to a small degree. There was a line in commercial I saw earlier in the year during a commercial for Windows which said “It’s good to be a family again.” In the commercial the father was using a Word document on his Windows Phone as a shopping list. As he was shopping, new items kept appearing on the list for things like candy and other junk food items. He quickly realized what was going on and the commercial ended showing his kids adding to his shopping list from their Windows PC at home. Changes they made to a document were instantly there in real time on his phone. This idea of how a family uses the cloud in a more holistic way is one that I think needs further development in this new era of commuting.

This extends outside the home as well. It would be great if new photos I took were not just synced across mine and my wife’s iCloud account but also with my parents and her parents and her grandparents. I am constantly putting photos on thumb drives and moving them or uploading chunks the cloud or to DropBox to get them from one place to another. There are solutions in the market but I want the manual processes removed and key communal data to simply stay in sync with those for whom it is relevant.

The bottom line is personal clouds are great but if they only work for me personally than they are useless at a communal level. People don’t use technology in a vacuum and we need hardware and software manufactures to not only solve problems for the personal computing ecosystem but for the family computing ecosystem as well.