Connecting the Desktop to the Cloud

Local links’ last stand


Despite the phenomenal proliferation of tablets and mobile devices, desktop software remains very popular. While there is a fine line between a desktop computer and a device at a high level, considering the nuanced differences between desktop computers and mobile devices helps shed light on the likely trajectory of their associated software.

Two stark differences

The first difference is that tablets and mobile devices tend to be very recent: thus the software available for desktop computers goes much farther back in time. In some cases, it stretches back to a very dark era when there was no Internet, and no conceivable reason one would access it. For example, in the case of print applications in the 1990s: it would have been absurd to connect to a web-housed asset, given the huge file size of print assets and the cost/latency of web-based file storage, not to mention the bandwidth limitations of the era.

Desktops, devices, and their associated software are quickly converging, around a cloud-based center

The second difference is that desktop devices have something that modern devices sometimes barely seem to remember: a local file system. True, most devices have local file systems of a sort, yet one of Steve Jobs’ more questionable “innovations” was to make file storage less transparent and less accessible/extensible: with iOS, for example, file-app relationships are pretty much hard-coded, and it is not so easy to “browse the file system” of an iOS device. Why would granny need to know what the file extension is or move it between applications? It should “just work.”

Why Box came to be

Whether the long-term future of devices will include robust file systems or not, the absence of file management in iOS, coupled with the trend towards ever-greater Internet connectivity and ever-lower storage cost has created an intriguing “new file system” — cloud-based repositories such as Box.

I point to Box instead of Amazon S3 or DropBox because the vision of Aaron Levie looks to me to be the likely future: S3 or Amazon may have coincidentally helped iOS users compensate for their missing file systems, but Box did so intentionally and actively. Box generally looked at centralized cloud-based storage with an acute awareness of the real-world, modern-day usage of such storage, with an enterprise focus, so they emphasized things like security while staying aware of the trend of device proliferation.

Box is not just a big FTP site. It is a platform.

Between Box and cloud storage platforms emulating Box, it is now quite viable to house files in a web or cloud-based environment. In fact, it is the most powerful way to go. It is the future, whatever Box’s valuation at time of IPO may be.

Wait a minute, something’s wrong

“We all know, something’s wrong”— Jimi Hendrix, Red House

Yet, given the first difference cited above between desktops and devices, there are certainly legacy issues with Box and other cloud platforms. PC software is not always so conversant with the modern age.

If you talk to enterprises evaluating moving to the Box platform, two applications pop up incessantly: Adobe InDesign and Microsoft Excel.

Why don’t these “just work” in a cloud platform context? It turns out that they are both rather ancient code bases. That would not mean anything on its own, but they have one thing in common.

The common anachronism: file-based links

Both InDesign and Excel allow for links. In Adobe InDesign, you place a picture on your document, and it creates a “link” to that file. And this is not the sort of “link” you would think of with a modern application, out to a remote server over HTTP. Excel also lets you “link worksheets” so many pre-existing, well-thought-out Excel workbooks function just great on the local file system or a mapped network drive. Do these or InDesign files work in the cloud?

No, both Excel and InDesign follow the 1992 concept of link… A link to files on the local file system (or something impersonating the local file system, like a mapped network drive or WebDAV share). The mess of moving copies around totally invalidates the original concept of a link.

The cure…

We have taken on the first challenge, making InDesign safe for the cloud, as we took technology for HTTP linking that was sitting dormant in InDesign since CS4 (2008) and made it work with all new cloud and DAM platforms, starting with Box.

Someone else will have to take on linked worksheets in Excel. As of now, there are real challenges in making Excel play nicely with the cloud when it comes to linked worksheets. It is really great at the old, file system approach, just like InDesign, but it loses the plot when it comes to the cloud.

I predict that someone will do for Excel what we did for InDesign, and URL-based linking will become the norm for enterprise workflows.

There may be a few other such applications that need to advance to the cloud era, but it is not so relevant if there is no linking concept within the application. The vast majority of applications load and save a single file, so a great deal of software moves to a cloud-based world with ease. Cleaning up these two stragglers will be a step forward.

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