This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2011-06-24 at 12:31 p.m.
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The Future Is Disposable

by Rich Mogull

When personal computers first started their mass migration into our homes we didn’t worry about corrupted hard drives or losing system configurations. Our digital lives were carried in boxes of floppies, and weren’t locked down in a single vault deep in the bowels of our computer, doomed to inevitable failure. Backups were as simple as copying a floppy, and any computer you booted looked and worked exactly like every other computer at home or the office, assuming it was made by the same company.

It was only with the advent of the hard drive that the box on your desk became a black hole for your content. Slowly, like the proverbial frog in the frying pan, we filled those drives with more data and settings than we could store on portable media.

First we became tied to our settings and applications. Rather than loading our word processor or new game off a disk on whatever system was handy, we installed it and permanently burned it the into the soul of the system. For a short time we could technically (and legally) install the application wherever we needed it, but eventually software licenses and digital rights management forced us to choose, at birth, where each application would live for its lifetime.

At the same time we started tweaking and personalizing our systems. “To improve workflow” we told ourselves, but since every computer now looked and acted slightly differently, it became that much harder to use anyone else’s Mac.

For a time we were at least able to keep our documents with us wherever we went. We moved from floppy disks to SyQuest cartridges and Zip disks, and then on to CD-Rs before ending up with USB drives in our quest to always have access to our information. Each successive technology became physically smaller and virtually more capacious. All were clunky but functional, although they were also a reliability and security nightmare, since it was all too easy for a disk to be damaged, lost, or stolen.

And then we generated and accumulated more data than could be copied to any reasonable portable storage device. That’s when it effectively became impossible to keep all our information — wherever it was stored, since we still needed access to it in multiple locations — current, synchronized, and complete.

To give ourselves credit, we did recognize these issues fairly early on. Businesses tried to get users to work from shared network drives. Microsoft came up with roaming profiles and other tools to let workers bounce between computers, but you were as likely to corrupt all your email as to get Outlook to launch on another workstation.

And thus we have created a world where we’re all on an endless quest to manage our systems and data. A world where we buy special cables to migrate to a new computer. A world where the loss of a laptop will cripple our ability to work. Where we spend countless hours backing up our backups, migrating our files via email, and pretending our laptops are desktops just so we have a little portability.

But that world is coming to an end. In the future our digital lives won’t be defined by and centered on our devices, but on our bits and bytes. Everything from our data to our applications will be portable, accessible, and persistent. Our devices, including our computers, will become instantly replaceable, even disposable. Their value becomes nothing more than the cost of the hardware, and we will never fear physical loss or failure.

The Future Is Here, but Unevenly Distributed –– I started writing this article on my iPad at a local coffee shop. When I ran out of coffee I closed my smart cover and walked out the door, drove home, and picked up where I left off on my computer. I never once chose a Save command, dialed into a network, or pressed a Sync button. After every few words my app used just a smidgen of my 3G bandwidth and updated the article on a cloud server. Once home, I launched the Mac version of the application and picked up right where I dropped off. In about 15 minutes I need to head off for another appointment, and while I’m in the waiting room I’ll continue writing, albeit at a slower pace, on my iPhone.

It’s hard to overstate the disruptive impact of the simultaneous adoption of cloud and mobile computing, combined with ever-improving network access. All at once, we are gaining the ability to access nearly all of our information and services, nearly anywhere we want. As much as we like to complain about network access, I’ve used my iPhone to navigate the streets of Moscow, my iPad to phone home from China, and my MacBook Air to video chat with my children from hotel rooms around the world. I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t access a file I needed, even if I had only my iPhone with me.

Late last year I was sitting in a hotel room in Kiev when a text message popped up on my phone, warning me of a canceled flight. The message was from TripIt [1], a travel service that tracks all my itineraries and alerts me of any changes. Within a few minutes, I had investigated alternate options to get home despite massive weather smashing a good chunk of the United States, called my airline using Skype, and secured a workable alternative itinerary. On the long trip home I met other travelers stuck in airports, waiting for flights, who realized their journey was in trouble only when they arrived for check-in.

But we are only skating on the earliest edges of this transition. Not all devices offer the same capabilities, and the cloud services backing them are a mishmash of varying feature sets and reliability. While the technology elite can configure and leverage nearly whatever they need, and regular users can access bits and pieces, it is often a laborious and confusing process to make things work the way you want. Even editing a standard office document on your iPad and sharing it with a coworker can involve a labyrinthine workflow spanning multiple applications and services.

It also isn’t necessarily cheap. I’m fortunate that my work pays for all the devices and network connectivity I need (an advantage of owning the company). I maintain wireless access on both AT&T and Verizon, and I have the resources to pay for expensive overseas access, a variety of services and applications, and the latest devices. Fortunately, history tells us that what’s difficult and expensive today will be common and cheap tomorrow, if the demand is there.

As Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others bake the cloud into our devices, operating systems, and applications, these sorts of scenarios will become the dominant way of using our technology, not an exception we need to self-configure and manage.

Tools Are Disposable –– One of the most fascinating aspects of this transition is a return to the days where our devices don’t matter. As not only our data, but our applications and settings migrate and synchronize across the cloud, we are no longer tied to the anchors sitting on our desks or carried in our bags. While we aren’t fully there yet, we’re close to being able to move from device to device and maintain the functionality and familiarity we need.

I used to be one of those people who relied on a big MacBook Pro instead of a desktop. Keeping files synchronized across more than one system was painful, and it was easier to limit my functionality than struggle to keep everything coordinated. Then, about two years ago, thanks to Dropbox [2], I was able to keep at least my important work files in sync across systems. I took the plunge and bought a big Mac Pro for my heavy day-to-day work, along with a smaller MacBook for traveling.

IMAP kept my email available on all my devices, MobileMe my calendar and contacts, 1Password [3] my logins, and Dropbox my files. I didn’t always have all the apps I needed, or things like music and photos, but from a work standpoint I could get my job done on the road.

A few months ago I decided to downsize once again and bought a MacBook Air to complement my iPad. That was the moment I realized how close we are to truly disposable computing.

Setting up the new system took a fraction of the time my migrations used to. Apple’s Migration Assistant effectively mirrored my older MacBook, pulling across all my applications, files, and settings. I also used it to synchronize my older MacBook Pro, which I still need on some trips that require beefier processing. In a short afternoon I ended up with three laptops with nearly identical configurations.

All of these laptops are encrypted, and data constantly synchronized. Before taking a trip, all I need to do is boot the one I need and let everything sync across the network. For trips where I don’t want a laptop, I have my iPhone and iPad, both of which also share access to all my files and services.

Instead of carrying my old box of floppies, I just pick the tool I need for the job, and have access to all I require wherever I am. Since each device is encrypted, if one is lost or stolen, I’m out only the cost of the hardware. (And while that’s non-trivial, I’ve already acknowledged that this lifestyle isn’t yet cheap.) Everything on all my systems is also backed up to the cloud — I could literally lose every single device at the same time without losing any important data.

In short, all my devices are disposable. I can replace any one — from my iPhone to my Mac Pro — at any time with minimal inconvenience. Yes, restoring many gigabytes of pictures or video isn’t an instant process, especially if I lose local backups, but just a few years ago losing all of my data was a very real possibility. What makes them disposable isn’t merely the persistence of information, but the consistency of data in conjunction with applications and settings. That’s what gives me the ability to pick up whichever one I want as I walk out the door and still have access to whatever I need.

[Editor’s Note: This vision is almost exactly what Google has touted as the guiding force behind their Chromebook [4] and Chrome OS. In that case, there is no local data at all; everything is stored in the cloud, since the face of the Chrome OS literally is a Web browser. But as a result, you can sign into any Chromebook — or use a Web browser on any computer — and have access to exactly the same data, applications, and settings. Obviously, there are some tradeoffs to living entirely in a Web browser, but you gain complete freedom from any particular device. -Adam]

Tomorrow Is Almost Here –– While my devices are disposable, maintaining this setup still requires a lot of manual effort. Not all of my software is licensed for multiple systems, I have to update everything manually, and configurations drift over time as I make changes on one system or another.

I don’t lose data, but I still need to be careful about what I save where and about keeping my applications up to date. It’s easy for a geek like me, but it’s a far cry from popping the right floppy into whatever hardware is handy and getting to work. The good news is we get closer to my idealistic scenario every year.

This is why iCloud and the Mac App Store are so interesting. Apple is creating the early pieces we need to move past the current limitations. With the Mac App Store we need only a username and password to pull down the latest versions of our apps on whatever system we need. Instead of having to manage updates manually like I do now, I only have to launch App Store, look for updates, and install them all at once. At long last, Apple has essentially opened Software Update up to other developers.

Apple is making this even easier in iOS by backing up your settings to iCloud. Instead of relying on the Migration Assistant, we’ll only have to enter our account credentials and wait while the device downloads all our settings from the master copy in the cloud.

To write this article I used Simplenote [5], a cloud service for writing with iOS apps along with a Web interface I run as a dedicated app on my Mac (thanks to the site-specific browser Fluid [6]). I never have to save, since my words are synced instantly to the cloud and then to my devices. iCloud, Lion, and iOS 5 could bring this functionality to all our applications. Rather than saving files in directories as I do now with Dropbox, applications could save and load data automatically, silently, in the background. Start on one device, edit, and continue on another without ever thinking about it. Make a mistake? Just go back and pull up an older version that was kept for you.

Many vendors offer tools to host files and backups in the cloud, but Apple is taking iCloud in a totally different direction. Within Apple’s ecosystem the cloud becomes the center of everything — your apps, your data, and your settings. It won’t be done by file synchronization that extends our current model of computing, but by baking the concept of cloud access into everything we do at a fundamental level. Our devices finally become tools, not roach motels where the bits check in, but never check out.

If Apple pulls this off it will be one of the most ambitious leaps in the history of consumer technology. Just as the Mac changed desktop computing, the iPod changed the way we listen to music, and the iPhone transformed the mobile phone into something from science fiction, the overlap of iCloud, Lion, and iOS could change everything we know about personal computing.