I’ve had some conversations lately about the future of Windows, and while many agree that Windows’ future is relegated to delivering one-off applications and not as the primary access point to all of our apps and data, not many talk about the implications of that and what gaps we need to fill before we can cut the cord. The gap that’s on my mind today is access to our files. Brian’s written that we’re approaching a time where we don’t care about “files” anymore because we have our application-specific data in Evernote or Google Drive. As each day goes by, I use each of these services more, and I find myself using local files less and less. Those that I do use are in Dropbox, where they’re still treated as files, but they’re available everywhere. The rest of my data is tied to specific applications.
The challenge is that if I want to find any of these documents on my phone or tablet, I pretty much have to know where to look since the data is tied specifically to the applications. My desktop, on the other hand, aggregates all of that for me, either natively or through the use of plugins. Google Drive documents are integrated into searches, as are notes in Evernote, emails, and files in Dropbox and elsewhere. Frankly, finding my files wherever they are is just about the only thing I actually need my desktop for.
Adding to the problem is that if we start delivering singular applications from the cloud via Amazon AppStream (same name, different product. AppBlast was taken, too.), MainFrame2, or the rumored “RemoteApp from Azure” Project Mohoro from Microsoft, we’re talking more application-specific data spread around the multiverse.
It’s not a problem that only applies to data. We have the same problem with television. I canceled cable about a year ago, and after a brief adjustment period we have things worked out. We use an Apple TV, but each time we want to watch something new (or an old show/movie we haven’t seen in a while) we have to play a guessing game. "Is it in NetFlix? No. Hulu? No. Wait, did we buy it on iTunes? And what the hell is Crackle, anyway? Maybe it’s in there?" It’s because we don’t have an aggregation point for searching all of these locations, and it’s what happens when we take the desktop away.
We see it now with our mobile devices, although it’s to a lesser extent since the apps are becoming more integrated into the devices. That doesn’t mean that we’re finding a way to solve the problem, though. It just means that we’re making our mobile devices more like desktops. Whoops!
The other thing we have to consider as the data becomes more app-centric is that the data becomes less portable. With files, I could use one app, say, Excel, and easily share my data with someone who uses OpenOffice. While that will still be possible, it's no longer as simple as emailing the file to the person. Assuming the app has the functionality, we need to export it into a common format, and the receiver needs to import it while hoping to preserve functionality. There's even additional complexity if trying to use differing cloud storage solutions. It's still similar, but those additional steps that don't seem like a big deal to us could be troublesome for users. We know how that story ends: troubled users will deal with that by being angry or by taking matters into their own hands (or both).
To me this is a major roadblock to the whole “Windows as middleware” thing. I still believe that’s the path we’re on, but there’s a gap that we need technology to fill before we can get there. Even if we put all our files into a cloud file syncing platform, we still have the application specific data to worry about, sort through, and access. As more data resides in applications, the problem of being able to find which app holds that data will grow. The hope is that some standard will emerge to lead the way accessing the proper apps via the data, which is the way it was done before application specific data...when there was just files. With luck, that standard will be something that works across the board, rather than being a platform-specific thing. When we get that worked out, the rest of the Windows-as-middleware puzzle should fall into place.