Summary

If you have used IMAP to connect an email client to an email server, then you already know the benefits that a personal cloud will provide to you. IMAP and SMTP create an email ecosystem where the user is in control. That's what personal clouds do for other applications.

Mail

When I talk about personal clouds, people sometimes don't quite get the model. Today Steve Fulling made a connection between what we're doing with personal clouds and IMAP. If you've ever used an email client to access your email on a server, then you've probably used IMAP. IMAP implements a proto personal cloud because it has many of the features we want in a personal cloud, but they're limited to just email. Here are a few of them:

  • The user picks and controls the email server—With an IMAP email client, your have a choice of multiple email providers. You can even run your own email server if you like.
  • Data is stored in the cloud—The mail client needn't store any user data beyond account information. While many email clients store email data locally for performance reasons, the real data is "in the cloud."
  • Mail client behavior is the same regardless of what IMAP server it connects to—As long as the mail client is talking to a mail server that speaks the IMAP protocol, it can provide the same functionality.
  • The client is fungible—I can pick my mail client on the basis of the features it provides without changing where I receive email.
  • I can use multiple clients at the same time—I can use one email client at home and a different email client at work and still see a single, consistent view of my email. I can even access my mail from a Web client if I don't have my computer handy.

If we add SMTP (and a dash of DNS) to the mix, we get additional benefits:

  • I can send you email without knowing anything but your email address.—none of the details about how you receive and process email are relevant to me. I simple send email to your address.
  • Mail servers can talk to each other across ownership boundaries—I can use GMail, you can use Yahoo! mail and the mail still gets delivered.
  • I can change email providers easily.—I receive email windley.org even though I use GMail. I used to run my own server. If GMail went away, I could start running my own server again. And no one else needs to know.

In short, email was designed with the architecture of the Internet in mind. Email is decentralized and protocol-mediated. Email is open—not necessarily open-source—fbut open in that anyone can build clients and servers that speak IMAP and SMTP. As a result, email maximizes freedom and control for the user and minimizes the chance of disruption. The features and benefits that email provides are exactly the same as those we want for personal clouds. Designed right, any application built on a personal cloud would provide similar functionality.

Web 2.0 has given us a model that is exactly the opposite of email. The model encourages user data to be stored in separate silos. You cannot easily migrate from one service provider to another. And when a service provider goes away, you are abandoned and marooned. You are not in control. Of course, it doesn't help that this is all in the service provider's best interest. They make money from the fact that the predominant model for building online applications leaves their users powerless.

There's no technical reason why the functionality of Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter and a thousand other Web 2.0 applications couldn't be provided by a decentralized, protocol-mediated network of providers and compatible application clients. In fact, they would be more powerful and more fit for purpose if it were. Personal clouds provide the same benefits that IMAP and SMTP do, but in a way that any application can take advantage of.

I believe that Web 2.0 is a temporary cul-de-sac. We will soon find our way out of it and again start building applications that are true to the architecture of the Internet. A number of projects are already moving that direction. Check out unhosted web apps, remotestorage, ownCloud, Cloudstore, and Respect Network's Zephyr. Our own SquareTag is built on personal cloud technology (the Kynetx CloudOS). When you sign up for SquareTag, you're creating a personal cloud. We'll be showing off how SquareTag and Kynetx CloudOS can be used for building personal cloud applications at Open West and IIW in May.