Andrew Lippman, who is the Founding Associate Director at the MIT Media Lab suggested at a talk last week that we were on the edge of a new third cloud where assistance becomes as important as access. The first cloud was the internet itself. The second cloud provided the services layer for the cloud (i.e., Google, Facebook, Amazon and so forth). The third cloud will take us to another level.
It will be geared to individual spaces like offices and airports and the goal won't be access, but assistance, helping users accomplish a single specific task without thinking about it. Lippman made his comments last Wednesday morning during his keynote address at the 2009 AIIM Content Management Conference.
One Application at a Time
Lippman says the idea of the third cloud began to percolate when he went to the Consumer Electronics Show and watched iPhone applications in action. He said the epiphany had to do with the idea that on the iPhone, you could only look at one application at a time, then you had return to the main page and choose a second application.
This is in stark contrast to an operating system which allows secondary windows to open, for multiple applications to be open at the same time and lots of complex interactions. Lipmann pointed out that the difference between mobile apps and the ones we use on our desktop computers was that they were meant to be used casually, maybe while we were doing something else.
At the same time, Lippman was watching the growth of social networks and became fascinated with how it blurred the work and play lines. Whereas once we worked then went home, today with mobile devices and social networks we have blurred the lines between work and play (for better or worse). What's more the social networking phenomenon has shattered the traditional idea of a firewall in his view and conventional IT ideas about data protection (which is not to say there won't be any security, just that it will be applied and viewed differently from today).
Which Brings us to the Third Cloud
So how does the MIT Media Lab make this idea of social networking, the mobile computer in our pockets and one application at a time metaphor come together? This is where the third cloud comes in. He asked the audience to picture computerized signs, but instead of a sign with a message, these signs act as conduits for our mobile computers giving us a white board of sorts on which to share our computing lives instantly. He explained that MIT is working on a new building for the Media Lab that will be equipped with these signs.
Each person who works there will have a mobile phone running Google Android (chosen for its openness) and when they approach one of these sign boards, information from their phone will pop up on the sign and display. For instance, depending on the situation, you may see a calendar. If two people come up the screen splits and you see calendars side by side on the board. This is one tiny example, but it shows how to begin to expose information so that being social becomes less a conscious action and more a natural part of our lives. He offered another example of five people on a conference call who speak five different languages and each one could be translated instantly.
Computing on the Fly
So this local cloud is no longer about accessing the internet or services in the cloud it's about on-the-fly interactions to help you complete individual tasks without any effort on your part. This brings to mind an article I wrote years ago about another MIT project called Project Oxygen. It was designed to make computing power as ubiquitous as electricity. Today in 2009 we have essentially achieved this goal.
The next wave is to provide ways to use that computing power intelligently and that's where the third cloud comes. You've probably heard of the example of walking past the grocery story and your mobile phone buzzes and reminds you need milk. This notion, Lipmman made fun of as so 1990s. With the third cloud, he explained, it will do that and communicate with your wife's phone and let you know you also need eggs and bread and it will sync with your friend's calender and remind you of the dinner party tonight and that you need tomatoes and mozzarella for the the tomato salad you promised to make.
He never talked about the privacy notions around such an approach, but he did say that in his view the notion of a firewall in this context is pretty much dead and IT has to give it up. Perhaps he also believes that we will give up the notion of privacy (if we haven't already) for the convenience of third cloud computing. We'll have to see how this plays out, but you can be sure they will be dealing with these issues in the Media Lab next year and we will be using with the same technology not long thereafter.