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Cloud Atlas: Defining and Categorizing the Personal Cloud

Cloud Atlas: Defining and Categorizing the Personal Cloud

Just as a cumulonimbus cloud is different from a cirrus, a storage cloud is different from a media cloud and a functionality cloud. Knowing the definitions can help with understanding competitive factors, forthcoming trends, and the various ecosystems that are providing a big lift to the consumer cloud marketplace.

The definition and makeup of the "personal cloud" are areas of intense debate. A variety of companies with a stake in cloud-based engagement have very different perspectives on what is and is not included as part of a consumer's personal cloud.

"The cloud" broadly refers to the content, services, and features that users can access remotely on the Internet or via some other network. Generally, the cloud can be segregated into those portions designed for business use and those portions designed for consumer use.

The business aspect of the cloud, which can be referred to as the "enterprise cloud," includes all online services, content, and features where the intended use is by people in businesses, governments, and organizations. The "consumer cloud" consists of all content, services and features accessible online by individual users for personal use. While Salesforce.com is an example of an enterprise cloud service, Facebook and YouTube are examples of the consumer cloud.

Within the consumer cloud, consumers feel a sense of ownership or personal entitlement to particular digital items or services, either because the consumer originated the content or because they paid for a particular service, feature, or item of content. This sense by a consumer as to what is "mine" or "yours" online is at the core of the definition of the personal cloud.

Two factors influence this sense of personal association with online items: the right to access particular features, services, and content and the authorized degree of control that a consumer has over those features, services, or content. Importantly, these two factors must both be included in order for something to be considered "personal" to the consumer.

Categories of the Personal Cloud

With such a broad definition of the personal cloud, identifying categories within the personal cloud is necessary to understand the ecosystems, competitive environment, and trends affecting each part of the personal cloud.

Since revenues from consumers will drive competitive forces within the personal cloud space, a classification based on the consumer perspective of the personal cloud provides a strong framework for evaluation of the marketplace. However, to understand the consumer perception of the personal cloud, the analysis must begin with an examination of how the personal cloud evolved.

The genesis of the personal cloud was in the remote storage of content, with online services allowing consumers to store and retrieve digital files online. Broadband providers and a variety of third parties began to offer consumers free online storage as a value-added service.

Similarly, vendors of in-home, Internet-connected NAS products enabled features that allow remote access to saved content. At the same time, online sites such as Picasa and Facebook became popular repositories for digital content.

This core feature, storing consumer digital files, is the foundation of the first category of the personal cloud: the "storage cloud." The storage cloud includes those services or products that allow consumers to store and access their own content online, including video, music, photos, documents, images, or any other digital files.

Several companies compete in this arena, including CE manufacturers, web portals, technology enablers, social networks, online storage services, and broadband providers.

While much of the content stored online was created by users, consumers increasingly stored professional content online, while music and video services serve much the same function as personal collections of digital content, providing consumers access to a library of entertainment options. The "media cloud" is that part of the personal cloud that provides consumers with access to professional content that the consumer has licensed and that is stored and delivered by a separate content owner or distributor.

Netflix, LOVEFiLM, and Spotify are just a handful of companies offering content via media cloud-based services. An important difference from the storage cloud is that consumers have less control over the content, as defined by the rights that consumers have for the content.

Vive la Difference

In order to differentiate themselves, encourage consumers to adopt, and avoid commoditization, online storage services began to offer a number of features such as automated backup applications, data synchronization, and authentication to allow other users (such as family or friends) to view stored digital files. Photo- and video-sharing sites started offering editing and online storage features.

Some services, such as Google Docs, allow consumers to create and store digital files online. Several vendors of Internet-connected devices have either added cloud-based features to their hardware products or have virtualized hardware-based features, using functionality provided via remote server.

These online applications and features comprise a third component of the personal cloud: the "functionality cloud." While the previous two categories were related to content, this category includes areas of functionality that are supported by online backend systems.

Virtualized features can be delivered in multiple ways, such as via a browser app or a virtual engine that runs on the client. Not all online functionality is part of a consumer's personal cloud. Although a consumer would perceive ownership in a paid subscription to an online videoconferencing application or cloud-based DVR, the same consumer would not likely perceive ownership of a free cloud-based application.

The final personal cloud category is derived from a recent trend in personal cloud services: "cloud management and interaction." As the number of cloud services available to consumers increases, managing them has become a challenge. To address this need, new services have arisen that help consumers manage these various services via a single interface.

Other services combine features of various cloud services to provide consumers with unique functionality. For example, Primadesk offers a cloud management interface to users who access multiple cloud-based services, such as Dropbox, Amazon, Flickr, and Facebook.

This final area is one of great potential opportunity for innovators to leverage the consumer's personal cloud to provide new services.

Today's personal cloud is clearly more than mere online storage. It has evolved into a broad set of content, services, and functionality that is accessible to consumers online. As broadband access in the home increases in penetration and throughput, the personal cloud will become more complex and will be integrated into the devices and services that consumers use every day.


Brett Sappington is director of research at Parks Associates.


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