Bringing “Personal Cloud” to Market

Personal CloudThis is about whether the buzzword “cloud” can ever find common usage by ordinary folks, even if it’s a noun modified by the word personal, as we now have with personal cloud.

The problem with the term “cloud” shows up immediately if you look up cloud computing. Your top result, at that link, will be Wikipedia’s, which begins with this explanation:

Cloud computing is the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the Internet). The name comes from the common use of a cloud-shaped symbol in system diagrams. Cloud computing entrusts remote services with a user’s data, software and computation.

End users access cloud-based applications through a web browser or a light-weight desktop or mobile app while the business software and user’s data are stored on servers at a remote location. Proponents claim that cloud computing allows companies to avoid upfront infrastructure costs, and focus on projects that differentiate their businesses instead of infrastructure.

Above those, at the top of the page, is a box that says this:

This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. Please help improve this article to make it understandable to non-experts, without removing the technical details.

In fact, I just did that. What you read above is actually less technical than it was before I removed some textual cruft. But two things are clear:

  1. “Cloud computing” is technical and complex.
  2. “The cloud” is a thing big entities do. It’s not personal.

Which brings us to the article  Cloud marketing strategy: Do consumers care if it’s called cloud? by Madalyn Stone in SearchCloudProvider. In that piece she blogs a problematic question: ”Though the ideas behind cloud computing have been around since the 1960s, and the term itself cropped up more than a decade ago, grasping the concept of “the cloud” still seems to be a challenge for many consumers.”

So, a few thoughts about that, which I’ll list and then unpack a bit:

  1. The term “cloud” is still new. As Madalyn says, it has only been around since ’06.
  2. Its usage in marketing is almost entirely B2B, not B2C, much less C2C.
  3. It has a technical meaning that is unavoidable for developers.
  4. Given that early adopters will be technical, we may be stuck with the word — at least until a truly better one (which invites common usage) comes along.
  5. There may be good marketing opportunities, even if “cloud” is the wrong word.

Many years ago I was involved an attempt by a bank in North Carolina (a “cradle of banking” in the U.S.) to re-name ATM because it was a dull three-letter acronym and most customers din’t know what it meant. The name chosen to replace it was a good one, but the effort failed, because usage was established, regardless of whether or not people knew that ATM meant “automated teller machine.”

I recall similar marketing complaints made early in the days of the personal computer. “People don’t use a PC to compute,” it was said. “Mostly they use it for other things.” While that was true, “personal computer” stuck because it was already in use.

“Personal computer” also had a sticky irony to it. Up until the PC’s time, computers were big things only big entities could afford. That a computer could be personal was, in the literal sense of the time, kinda oxymoronic. Yet it became clear over time that personal computing would be far more useful for most people than the corporate kind — and essential for corporations as well.

We have a similar situation with personal clouds. Up to this point in history, “the cloud” and “cloud computing” have been positioned entirely as big things that big entities have and do. (That’s why it’s still mostly B2B.) Yet, as with personal computing, far more will be do-able by individuals with their own clouds than is now do-able by big entities. So, whether or not “personal cloud” ends up being a common expression, it’s important to recognize the scale of growth potential contained in the ironic combination of those two words. If it’s true that people will be able to do more with big data than companies can, the potential is very large indeed.

But it’s still early for personal clouds. This is why, while we need marketing thinking and language to talk about outcomes and benefits, we can’t dismiss the technical language that workers building stuff already use. Techies need a vocabulary to talk about what they do with personal clouds, and to describe it to other techies.. Some of that vocabulary won’t be erase-able when the time comes to name categories and market products and services within those categories.

Also bear in mind that, early in the evolution of any technology, most talk will be tech talk, because most work will be tech work, and most of the early adopters will be technical as well. As Marc Andreessen once told me, “All technology trends start with technologists.”

We need to also bear in mind that many common terms, whether of technical or marketing origin, are not entirely accurate. A browser doesn’t just browse, a server doesn’t just serve and a client isn’t just a client.

At this stage “personal cloud” itself is both very new and possibly not permanent. At IIW a year ago, Kynetx was still talking about “personal event networks” (meaning what we now call personal clouds) and Respect Network was talking about its trust frameworks. Now both are leading personal cloud developers, and positioned that way.

And, as more techies show up and start helping to raise the same barn, they will bring their own vocabularies and spins on existing vocabularies.

This is why I think it’s important for us to listen closely to the sounds made on the ground at IIW this next week. While we need to respect what the techies say as well as do, we also need to keep marketability in mind. To help with that, let me offer the social graph as an example of Things Gone Wrong.

When the term first showed up, in this piece by Brad Fitzpatrick, I lobbied hard in Linux Journal against using it, and for coming up with something better. I failed, and “social graph” today is as viral as a lump of lead. Even Mark Zuckerberg can’t make it catch, and the number of ordinary people who say “my social graph” today rounds to zero.

Will “my personal cloud” meet the same fate? I don’t think so, especially with its new logo, up there at the top. (From 99 Designs, btw.) But I also don’t know. Kinda depends on how good, and usable, the tech is.

5 comments

  1. Pacewisdom’s avatar

    Nice read. I Personally liked your statement – ” A browser doesn’t just browse, a server doesn’t just serve and a client isn’t just a client. ”

    Thanks.

  2. CoCreatr’s avatar

    Interesting, just earlier today I sailed across “personal cloud” for the first time, in the context of home media servers, DLNA, and network attached storage devices. Was wondering if I could get such a box to serve my personal data as well, VRM style? One example (not an endorsement, disclosure: I own a 2010 box of same maker) http://www.buffalotech.com/products/network-storage/home-and-small-office/linkstation-pro-1

  3. Ranjan Roy’s avatar

    I’m even more curious about how this plays out with the age divide. For me, I never really thought of Gmail / Hotmail as cloud-based email, it was just email. Whereas my Dad’s small business still happily uses Outlook, and it blew my mind when he said he didn’t trust not having his emails downloaded to his computer.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that all software is heading towards cloud-based, SaaS models..but I imagine that sounds beyond scary to any non-techie who’s used to having bought physical software and installed it on their computer. For all other younger folk, it’s just gonna be “services” or “software” or “programs”, with none of the physical connotations.

  4. Franklin White’s avatar

    Getting things on the cloud has its advantages and disadvantages. But as a personal opinion, its advantages outweighs the latter especially to small business owners like me. The flexibility it offers on services, platform or infrastructure as the company gets bigger is very attractive. Soon majority of things are in the cloud so as work are outsourced!

    Great piece of article. Thanks.

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