The Personal Cloud, Take 2

There’s been a wonderful discussion of “personal cloud” on the VRM mailing list this week. So far feedback is running about 80% positive on the term. But if there’s one point on which everyone has consensus, it’s that our collective “inside baseball” opinions really don’t matter. What counts is how the average Internet citizen reacts to it.

So let me tell you this story.

Last night I had dinner with a friend, Claude Golden, an attorney at Boeing and husband of my oldest son’s Seattle Waldorf School teacher. We got to talking about personal finance programs, and I explained why, after more than a decade of using Quicken, I had switched to Mint.

When I explained to him that you actually give Mint all your personal banking usernames and passwords, Claude was stunned — as most people usually are (I certainly was when I first heard about Mint). But when I told him that Intuit, the company behind Quicken, turned around and bought Mint for $170 million less than two years after it was founded, Claude understood why I had decided that I could trust Mint with my personal banking credentials. (I’ve never looked back, by the way — Mint is saving me at least a few hours each month in personal financial management time, and in my time-choked life, that’s priceless.)

When looked at in that light, suddenly it was obvious to Claude why people would want to do their personal financial management “in the cloud”. It eliminates the whole hassle of downloading all the data to a personal computer, doing the “management”, then uploading right back up to the cloud for backup because the data is too valuable to just keep locally anyway. (I explained to Claude that when Intuit first came out with an online backup service for Quicken data, I never purchased anything so fast in my life. It cost a whopping $9.99 a year — I would have paid ten times that to rid myself of the hassle of constantly backing up a decade’s worth of Quicken data.)

With Mint, the data never needs to come “down from the cloud” at all. In fact, with the right trustee, it’s actually safer in the cloud than it ever was on my hard drive. When you think about it, that’s been true of money for decades. Be reasonably diligent in choosing a bank, and your personal funds will be far safer there than under your mattress.

And infinitely more useful.

So, as the light bulb went on for Claude about why he might want to be using Mint, I took the opportunity and just casually slipped in: “Yeah, Mint is just the first step. Pretty soon you’ll have your own personal cloud.”

Claude shot me a look. “Oh, sure, I get it. A place for all my data. Stored safely in the cloud. Where all my devices can get it. Is that what you’re building?”


But the story’s not over. After dinner we drove to where our mutual friend, Alex LaVilla, was having an art opening at the Nalanda West Center for American Buddhism in Fremont (the wonderfully funky Seattle neighborhood just north of the ship canal between Lake Union and Puget Sound). Alex was the inaugural artist for a new series of spiritual art shows at Nalanda West.

As I walked in, I spotted Alex talking with a Buddhist monk who I assumed worked with Nalanda. As I came over to say hi, Alex introduced me to Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. Since Alex knows I’m in the Internet industry, by way of introduction he said, “Dzogchen tweets all the time. Sometimes he sends entire poems.” Dzogchen smiled as my eyes went wide — my image of a modern Buddhist monk doing cartwheels in my head. Alex then turned to Dzogchen and said, “Drummond works on all kinds of cool Internet stuff.” Which of course caused Dzogchen to turn to me with a warm smile and look of great anticipation. “Yes?”

Now here was the real litmus test. I decide to take it head on. I answered in just two words:

“Personal clouds.”

He face lit up like a candle. “Really?” But it was what happened next that really floored me.

Alex — who had never heard those words out of my mouth — immediately turned to Dzogchen and said, “Yeah — you know how those Microsoft commercials are always saying, ‘Take it to the cloud’?” Dzogchen nodded. “It’s just like that, only it’s all your stuff. Your files, your photos, your credit card records, your tweets — all your personal information — you can have it in your own cloud. And you control who gets what.”

Now it was Dzogchen’s turn for his eyes to go wide. “Wow. When can I get one?”



Okay, so it’s only incidental evidence from an audience sample of two, but so far field testing of “personal cloud” is showing a light-bulb velocity I rarely see in tech marketing. Even “desktop publishing” didn’t register this fast when Aldus first started using it in 1984.

So I did a little further digging and found this August 6 2009 blog post from Chuck Hollis, VP Global Marketing CTO at EMC, called I Want My Personal Cloud. Excerpt:

So much of the cloud discussion is pointed at businesses — what about us as individuals?

And — yes — there’s a potential type of cloud that I think we’ll all want.

A personal information cloud.

He goes on to explain:

We’re all pretty comfortable using cloud-like services in our personal lives.  Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr — the list goes on and on.

But I’d offer that there’s a better potential model out there — and someone is going to get to it sooner than later.

As a simple example, imagine I have 1,000 personal photographs.  There are a few that I don’t mind sharing publicly, others that I want to restrict to different categories of people I know (of course, my relationship with these people change over time), and — of course — a few photographs that I really don’t want floating around anywhere, period.

He then dives into what he believes are the three essential features of personal clouds: 1) control, 2) convenience, 3) permanent archive. Compare that to this list of the essential features of personal data stores that was compiled at the last Internet Identity Workshop.

Chuck’s post acknowledges that the idea started with Storagezilla’s August 4 2009 post entitled The Personal Cloud, which in turn quotes Decho Veep of Product Management Charles Fitzgerald at BusinessCloud9 saying:

…there’s no reason why every device can’t be backed up automatically to the Cloud. The Cloud world will start to refine and segment itself and one of the segments will be the Personal Cloud. This will be a repository for personal information that enables you to organise and access. It’s inevitable that we will reach the point where we move our personal information away from a device and out into the Cloud.

But as we look five years out, we need to be able to manage that Cloud. We have information scattered on a increasingly large number of sources. Facebook is now the biggest photo hosting service in the world, but they throw away the originals you upload. Having a Personal Cloud will allow you to keep the originals, but share them out.  The most important thing about the Personal Cloud is that it will be personal.  Fundamentally the data is your data and you need to be in control of it.

So neither the idea nor the term “personal cloud” is really new — all of this was 18 months ago. And the VRM community has been talking about personal data stores since 2004.

But, as with almost everything in tech, it’s all about timing. The Personal Data Ecosystem hadn’t formed yet. And, in my personal opinion, the technologies that can actually implement the personal control that all these authors agree will be necessary for personal clouds wasn’t there yet (hint: Internet identity is only the start). For example, Jeremie Miller hadn’t created the Locker Project or Telehash protocol yet, nor his new company based on it, which just won best-in-show at the O’Reilly Strata Conference Startup Showcase.

So maybe it’s finally time to seed personal clouds for real.