The end of local storage

Looking at longer term trends, I’ve come to the conclusion that recordable CDs, DVDs, and USB drives are going the way of the dodo and will be mostly gone from the tech landscape by 2020. Along with them, things like recorded DVDs will disappear, upending much of the existing digital content distribution models.

An abbreviated history of storage

Anyone who has used a computer has found themselves in the same situation: at some point, they have needed to take information off the computer in order to share it on another computer.

In the old days, this was done via diskettes, which were replaced by CDs, and eventually CDs were displaced by recordable DVDs and USB solid-state drives.

In the corporate (or prosumer) market, larger data needs led to the use of ZipDisk, Syquest drives, and eventually file servers.

As household increased their expertise in the tech space, we’ve seen the rise of Network Accessible Storage (NAS) devices for home use (for example, the popular Apple Time Capsule or the WD MyBook series).

Devices vs. Desktops

But over the last few years, the storage landscape has grown more complicated. As more consumers carry smartphones, portable media players, digital cameras, and camcorders, or play digital content downloaded for their televisions, the computer is loosing its dominance on usage of digital media. And, along the way, the computer is no longer the hub of everything digital in the household.

Digital content is now spread across that wide array of devices and will become increasingly untethered from the computer to the point where some household may remain heavy consumer of digital media without even owning a computer.

Meanwhile, in the business world, content sitting on employees’ computers is hard to find and harder to control. Laptops can walk away from a company with crucial company content on their hard drives so there’s an increase push to get users to save their information on centralized servers.

Enters the cloud

However, along with the spread of devices, there has been a growing spread in available bandwidth at higher speed. A decade ago, the majority of internet users were accessing it at speed of about 56kbps. Today, that number has gone up 100-fold and will continue to go up (by some estimate, the 100Mbps mark will be standard by 2020.)

With extra bandwidth to spare, data can now be stored more efficiently on remote servers.

In the consumer space, people are increasingly storing their videos on YouTube or Flickr, their images on Flickr and Facebook, and other files on the likes of Google Docs. Social networks are becoming a large repository of backup data that can be shared with friends or locked away.

And today, some solutions are allowing for such things to happen automatically from the devices to the web. For example, I use Eye.fi cards in most of my cameras, which dynamically upload the content of the camera to the online service(s) of my choice. They also have software based solutions that run on the iPhone and Android devices. Pixelpipe, one of their competitors, is software based only.

In the enterprise space, companies like dropbox, drop.io, and box.net provide solutions that store the files on their servers and allow end-users to access them from any computer or mobile devices.

Creation, Distribution, Consumption

Up until recently, I was pretty opposed to the iPad as a device, seeing it as a consumption only device. Over the last few months, as more tools have become available, we’ve seen a slew of tools allowing people to use the iPad in creative ways. My blind spot was to equal storage with creation and assuming that content was not stored locally, it would be issue from a creation standpoint.

But I was wrong.

In today’s world, content that sits locally is pretty much as good as dead. It is not distributed and thus is not consumed. This epiphany came to me not as a result of using an ipad but while authoring a story for my site. I realized that I was opening up my browser and launching a web app to do so. The same had been true for most of my week and I often can go days without opening a desktop app other than my browser. As a result, I’ve concluded that local storage is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

What is still relevant, though, is the existence of some form of local storage. In the future, local storage will be used primarily to hold content and application on a temporary basis before said content and app return to the cloud. The reason for such an approach is that running application locally will always be more efficient than running them over a network link.

Impact on consumer electronic

Probably more important is the final impact on digital media. The iPod was revolutionary in that it did away with the standard model of distribution for music: CDs are increasingly getting replaced by digital distribution and may continue to exist as a specialized domain (much like there are still some LP record purchasers today.)

The Kindle (and its competitors in the e-reader category) are starting to do the same thing to magazines, newspapers and books.

The iPad takes music, books, magazines, newspapers, TV shows, and other video content and runs them through a single device.

The same thing is about to happen to all video content. Today, companies like Netflix shuffle a lot of plastic back and forth so the plastic piece can be played on a specialized device (either a DVD or BluRay player) and then returned. Netflix has seen the writing on the wall and is increasingly trying to push its users (and providers) to move to a plastic-free world by streaming the media directly to the device of their choice. Much like kids today may not really understand the concept of rewinding a video tape, the kids of tomorrow will not understand the idea of putting something into a machine in order to play it.

As streaming distribution becomes more common, attitudes towards the disks will change so that such things are only catering to a much smaller audience.

My five-year-old son looks at DVDs as something you can decorate in art projects, not something you can play. His view is that everything is available on demand either via my computer, smartphone, or our connected TV (Try explaining to a 5-year-old that Wall-E is not available because it’s outside the release window set by the studios). With the advent of Apple TV and Google TV, his experience is about to become more common.

He’s the consumer of tomorrow and his view is that storage is something that happens in the cloud. In his teenage years, he might end up looking at USB drives with the same disdain as we look at videotapes.

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About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.

  • http://doc.searls.com Doc Searls

    All good points. But much of it won’t happen as long as data connections remain constipated, asymmetrical and overpriced.

    The bottleneck here is the carriers. Good luck talking sense to them. Right now those serving homes are all slathering over the move of TV to IP, because they can get to intermediate the charge-for-content game that cable TV has been for decades, but on a more granular à la carte basis. Meanwhile the mobile carriers would rather limit data use and enjoy the benefits of “bill shock” to compliant 3G customers who make the mistake of using data connections while “roaming” across national borders.

    In fact, the carriers can benefit from the cloud enormously, but locating local storage beside fat backbone, conditioned power and free real estate at cable head ends and telco central offices, and offer services either on their own branded basis or white labeled from Amazon, Google and Rackspace.

    But, again, good luck getting anywhere with them on it. They’ll keep pushing ‘triple play” until they realize they’ve struck out.

    IMHO on a Friday afternoon, anyway. :-)

  • http://www.tnl.net/ Tristan Louis

    Doc,

    I agree that the data connections need to be there but I suspect that it’s only a question of time. 100Mbps should be enough and I suspect that we’ll see that in the next decade or so.

    The worry, on my end, is actually that this will become more of the norm. The net-net of such a norm is that end-users will no longer have full control over their bits as those bits will now be stored on some corporate server somewhere.

    At that point, our bits will be regulated under potentially onerous terms of services that could lead to those corporations owning more of the content than we do.