The Personal Cloud

The hallmark of a rapidly growing new space is new terminology. Craig Burton goes so far as to posit that the growth of the space will be constrained until it has a lexicon that successfully incorporates its key concepts.

All of which applies in spades to the personal data ecosystem. As this space grows, it must clearly describe how it differs from other related spaces, including social networking, user-centric/federated identity, mobile computing, and cloud computing.

It must also explain how it delivers the infrastructure necessary for new business models and services, such as Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) or quantified self applications (also called lifelogs or personal metrics).

At the Conversational Commerce Conference (C3) last week, there were two sessions on CRM and VRM. Both required giving the audience a brief summary of the basic idea of VRM as “the inverse of CRM” where the customer has their own relationship management system that is the peer of the vendor’s.

David Siegel popularized the concept of this system in his book Pull, calling it the personal data locker. If you haven’t seen his Personal Data Locker Vision video, he just released it for public access – I recommend it.

For its part, the VRM community has long referred to this system as the personal data store or PDS. However I blogged last fall about the key problem with the term “personal data store” for many audiences: it suggests all your personal data is in fact stored there, like money in a bank, when in fact a PDS may only be a dashboard to personal data stored anywhere on the net.

For that reason I began using the terms personal data server and personal data service. But the marketer in me still harbors the suspicion that none of these are what will ultimately survive in the market.

Why? They don’t follow the marketer’s equivalent of the developer’s rule about the simplest thing that could possible work. Examples:

  • Desktop publishing added just one word to the existing concept of “publishing” to describe this new category. (And within months it was further simplified to DTP).
  • Web server and web page added just one word to the well-known concepts of “server” and “page” to describe this new form of Internet hypertext (note that the term “hypertext” itself never made it into the general market lexicon — too complex).
  • Browser is an even more severe example. Although the Wikipedia-sanctioned term is web browser, in everyday usage in the market it’s been smooshed down to just one word — “browser” — the same way facsimile machine was smooshed down to just one word — “fax“.
  • Cloud computing is the most recent example of adding just one word to describe the key distinguishing characteristic of a new space: the fact that the data was no longer on a local device under local control.

Who would have thought that the idea of network-based computing would come to be defined by the adjective “cloud”? But in fact the choice of the term “cloud” illustrates the dictum that it doesn’t actually matter what the distinguishing modifier for a new category is. It only matters that it:

  • Is unique in the context in which it is being applied.
  • Captures the essence of what distinguishes the new category.
  • Is simple and evocative enough to catch on.

Okay, now let’s return to the question of the concept at the core of the personal data ecosystem. By these measures, neither “personal data store”, “personal data server”, nor “personal data service” are good candidates for the go-to-market lexicon because:

  • They are too long.
  • They don’t adequately isolate the key distinguishing characteristic of what makes the personal data ecosystem new. In other words, it’s not personal data that’s new. It’s the way in which personal data and relationship are managed, controlled, and shared.

Now, fast forward to the final session at C3 entitled “The Age of the Individual: From CRM to VRM”. When the VRM’rs on the panel first explained the concept of the personal data store, Mark Plakias, VP Strategy and Design at Orange Labs in San Francisco, immediately referred to it as the personal cloud. Although I’d heard the term a few times before, Mark’s usage suddenly rang true for me. He was referring to everything that the VRM community has traditionally defined a PDS as encompassing, plus personal storage, backup, connectivity, and other options that will clearly be part of the overall value proposition as the concept goes to market.

A little Google searching this weekend showed that a number of vendors including Iomega and Tonido are already using the term for cloud storage of personal data assets. And last May Forrester analyst Frank Gillette predicated that the personal cloud will replace the traditional personal computing OS.

That all seems to fit. But what I particularly like about personal cloud is:

  • It meets the simplest thing that could possible work test by taking what is now a well-known concept (”the cloud” as popularized by Microsoft’s “To the cloud” TV campaign and many other vendors) and distinguishing it with just one word that explains why this is different: personal.
  • It suggests the concepts of server, service, and storage all in one word.
  • It is neutral as to whether you operate this cloud yourself or use a fourth-party provider.
  • It naturally captures the idea that your personal data may either be stored in your personal cloud or linked to your personal cloud — either is fine.
  • It still has enough of a location-based metaphor that an individual can envision “moving their personal cloud from one provider to another”.
  • It suggests the value of personal data assets beyond just managing or sharing them — for example that you will have personal cloud apps to which you grant permission to use your personal cloud data just like you have mobile apps to which you give permission to access your location data.

So — in the interests of advancing the lexicon for all of us who want to see the personal data ecosystem space grow — I’m reaching out for feedback about personal cloud as one of our anchor terms.