February 16th, 2014

The Cloud as an Adoption Problem

Over the last year (wow, I sure repeat myself a lot), I spent a lot of time stomping out the Paper Pest. After signing up for LastPass, I felt confident enough to set up accounts everywhere I had some sort of business relationship, and moved every bill to paperless as I received it. I also signed up with CatalogChoice and used MailStop (Paper Karma would probably be what I would choose if I were doing this now, since MailStop ceased being available to new customers) to decline all catalogs coming in the mail. I started using Apple Notes, then switched to EverNote and then back to Apple Notes plus Google Docs, rather than writing notes on paper. I brought my online address book up to date, worked down the backlog in my inbox, moved all my photos onto Flickr and am currently moving to Apple's Calendar (I used to use Google's Calendar and Very Bad Things kept happening). I ripped all my CDs into iTunes Match. I _thought_ I was just catching up on what everyone else was doing (getting rid of physical media in favor of electronic or virtual or cloud based media), but it is increasingly clear to me that most of my friends -- many of whom are earlier on the adoption curve than I am, and who are more tech savvy than I am -- make far less consistent use of far fewer consumer cloud services.

As I'm reading _Diffusion of Innovations_ (which is super problematic in many ways, making it a very difficult read), it occurs to me that three really crucial factors are inhibiting adoption of consumer cloud services.

(1) Most people who can afford to pay for consumer cloud services are old enough to already have some sort of media solution already: they've got an enormous iTunes library on their desktop or a harddrive or whatever. They are used to curating media; they have a backup system and they are either uninteresting to malicious hackers or have come up with a way to protect themselves. To convince this group of people to switch, you have to make the case that the cloud offers something significantly better AND not significantly worse where significantly is defined as Enough to Justify the Trouble of Switching. Your cloud service had better be fast, convenient, cheap and not prone to horrifying and unexpected failure. Also, your consumer has to believe you will stay in business.

(2) Many people whose media life is large/complex enough as a consumer to want consumer cloud services are going to challenge your ability to scale your service to meet their needs, at a price point they can be happy with. If you cannot satisfy these power users, they will moan to everyone around them, who will be reluctant to bother to research your service because their early adopter friends are dissing you.

(3) Cloud services are inherently difficult to explain. They are basically non-local file systems with multiple access points with security, backups and so forth managed by someone else for a fee. Problems can arise at the connection (if the consumer doesn't understand the data transfer requirements, they could cost themselves a bunch of money on data overages on a phone plan, be frustrated by how long things take, etc.), at access (consumers are prone to forgetting usernames and passwords, which cloud services tend to use, and if you're too lax about security to ensure the customer can access then you run into the next problem), while keeping them secure, maintaining consumer confidence in privacy, etc. Worst of all, however, is maintaining integrity of data while allowing changes to the data through multiple access points. The whole point of iTunes in the iCloud or iTunes Match or whatever is that once your music is there, you can listen to it on your phone, your tablet, your laptop, your AirPlay connected speaker. Apple has trouble maintaining Purchased Library consistency, and Amazon has trouble shipping Purchased Library data -- at least for large libraries. Things get exponentially worse when the customer can change the data and those changes aren't successfully synchronized across devices. Google Drive solves this by not letting you do _anything_ offline (mostly but not completely true); EverNote attempted to let you work offline to a greater degree, and the results for years were unpredictable and occasionally devastating. Both solutions can profoundly interfere with productivity and produce enormous customer frustration.

If you're using EverNote or Google Drive, and you understand the many contributors to delays in accessing your data to view or change, you may or may not be able to figure out where your problem lies and correct it. But most users not only don't understand the many additional components involved in a client-server system vs. a monolithic system -- they aren't ever going to be able to understand them. If adopting, or continuing to use a product or service with a cloud component _requires_ understanding too much, that product or service will limit its market and likely ultimately fail.

It'll be interesting to see how this shakes out. A lot of people never, ever, ever did backups. Some fraction of them ultimately lost data that was of some importance to them. The cloud offers some convenience and security by offering to maintain your data for you, at some cost of accessibility now and going forward. It is _not_ obvious to a capable user in the existing world of desktops, laptops, mini desktops, etc. that many consumer cloud services (uploading your music to the cloud, vs. an external hard drive you maintain; uploading pictures to Flickr, vs. etc.) are a win. But most potential consumers of cloud services are _not_ capable users in the existing world. It remains to be seen whether these services can be presented in a sufficiently simple manner to sell better and sustain the ongoing usage patterns that justify the subscription model.

PSTN and the paperless office: fax still exists, but maybe not for a lot longer

I blogged recently (http://walkitout.livejournal.com/1086514.html) about the imminent demise of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). All you cord cutters out there (fair's fair; we may have a land line, but it's Verizon Digital Voice, so we aren't on PSTN either any more) who rely upon VoIP and/or cellular phone services mean much less money going into supporting old-fashioned copper lines and TDM (geek it up at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time-division_multiplexing#TDM_versus_packet-mode_communication). Which is yay, good, modern, progress, etc. But as I find myself saying so many times, there is a transition problem.

Specifically, the transition problem includes the following important services which rely upon PSTN:

Analog Fax
911 systems
Fire and other alarm systems

And presumably other things, but these are kind of serious business.

Up until last year, I was still having to fax things every few months, usually involving financial services who couldn't seem to accept scanned and emailed documents. Once they could accept scanned and emailed documents, I started either scanning and emailing or, more recently, just taking a picture with the phone and mailing it from there. I tried to establish end-to-end digital workflow using HelloSign but it kept crashing on me, so I still print the damn things out, sign them, take a picture and email it, which is embarrassing, but whatever.

Health care still relies extensively on fax (particularly in the communicate-to-pharmacy stage, bizarrely), but that's changing with regulations involving EMR.

There's an odd thing involving letters of intent and sports teams using faxes, but that's changing and besides, it's a niche weirdness along the lines of wedding telegrams.

And there are still a ton of small professional practices (often law, finance/accounting and similar) which rely heavily upon fax communication. They are the only group that really relies on faxes that isn't experiencing any organized pressure to convert and thus they are the one likely to be most heavily impacted by the end of PSTN. Good news: lots of these people are voluntarily switching away from traditional land lines/copper/PSTN, in favor of VoIP for cost savings. When they switch, they learn that their fax doesn't work so good over their new phone system and frequently decide to go to an online fax service, altho some presumably sign up for FoIP. FoIP directly packetizes fax signals and ships them over the internet, rather than sending them as analogue signals that get (incorrectly) packetized as part of the VoIP packetization, so FoIP works well -- and doesn't rely upon PSTN.

It looks like most fire and other alarm systems work roughly the way that fax machines do: they _were_ sending out signals in analog form and the result interacts poorly with VoIP, which optimizes its packetization to produce a good sounding human voice. The solution will be the same as with fax machines: replacement equipment that packetizes the signals and sends them out over the internet without involving the PSTN. In the meantime, most of these things can work over cellular systems.

I'm still poking around at how 911 will handle the transition. Right at the moment, it's looking like not great, but I feel confident that technical problems have technical solutions.

(ETA: A little bit about 911 and VoIP. Power outage issues apply to users of Digital Phone/Digital Voice services as well. http://www.fcc.gov/guides/voip-and-911-service)

Will this be free? Nope. Will the end result be an improvement? Probably. Will the 20% of the population which is pugnacious in its opposition to all change see Evil Conspiracy in all this?

For sure.

ETA: A possible future: http://www.nojitter.com/post/240145831/finally-texting-to-911
Another possible future: http://www.hightechforum.org/a-broader-vision-for-wireless-9-1-1/