How Will the Device Independent Platform Be Built?
Building the Portable Workspace
Several different architectural models are now beginning to jostle for position in the architecture. They include:
- SaaS interfaces. Google and companies such as InfoStreet are examples of the SaaS approach. This model uses a browser to set up and maintain a cloud-based desktop. This approach has a great deal to recommend it, but browser-based applications can have performance and connectivity issues and often rely on underlying hardware to print, move files, etc. Also, browser-based applications are very different from hardware-specific smartphone apps written to the device. Running emulators within browsers is possible, but there can be performance problems.
- App interfaces. Mobile apps are similar in design methodology to SaaS systems, but most apps, particularly those written to a device’s “metal,” are a poor fit for use on larger displays. In response, UI designers are spending increasing amounts of time creating adaptive interfaces for mobile applications.
- Hypervisors, emulation and virtualization. These technologies have long been used to run different OSs on the same device. Products such as VMware, Parallels, Bluestacks, etc. enable you to run Windows on Apple, Mac OS on Wintel boxes, Android on Windows and so on. The problem with these approaches is that traditionally each OS or machine exists in a self-enclosed universe is limited in its ability to “communicate” outside it. Container systems such as Dockers, which virtualizes applications, are a technology of growing interest to advocates of device independence as they strip away OS complexity. Of course, a virtualized application retains the underlying characteristics of the environment in which it was written, though many people won’t care as long as the application meets their needs.
- Adoption of write once, run anywhere application languages. HTML5 is the latest in a series of such initiatives beginning with UCSD p-System. In theory, an application written in HTML5 should look and run the same across any device that supports HTML5. Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform and Continuum project are examples of a variant of this strategy.
- Cloud operating systems such as Chromium. While Android has attracted the bulk of the industry’s attention, Google’s Chromium OS is picking up steam, particularly in educational markets. Today, many millennial students coming out of high school and college are experts in Google Docs and related online software and have never touched Microsoft Office. Samsung has just announced it’s developing new web OS for the IoT.
There are other models we’re aware, most blends of the above. For example, Neverware’s CloudReady OS, based on Google’s Chromium, allows you to install the OS not only on Chrome books but on a wide variety of other Windows portable systems.
The Services Layer
The second component is the services layer. It can be visualized as a “stack” of services that support the workspace and integrate it with the cloud. When needed, layers can be “slid into” the stack where they function as device and service managers. Some layers already developed and deployed include:
- A display layer. This is vital to the need to manage display parameters across the cloud.
- Entertainment and gaming layers that provide access to services such as NetFlix, Hulu, online gaming and so on.
- A security layer. The IoT has already made huge numbers of businesses and people vulnerable to privacy violations on a scale they don’t realize.
- A privacy layer.
- A data normalization layer. This would enable SaaS and mobile applications to transfer data seamlessly (in theory) and bypass the siloizaton problem characteristic of these products. In 2013, Intuit purchased one of the first online data layers from Roger Sippl, the former CEO of DBMS pioneer Informix.
- A user input layer. Many industry observers were puzzled by Microsoft’s recent purchase of Swiftkey. This keyboard macro and auto-correction technology was released for Android, then iOS. The availability of the product for Windows Phone will not help Microsoft gain smartphone OS marketshare, but it does put Microsoft in a strategic position at the fingertips of million of portable workspace users.
- Niche or vertical market layers. In SaaS Entrepreneur: The Definitive Guide to Succeeding in Your Cloud Application Business we profile a vertical layer that has been developed for the vending machine industry.
- A local devices layer. The market is moving rapidly to a model where applications and their related data will reside for the most part online. However, there will always be information and data people will want to manage locally.
There are thousands of service layers that will be created over the next several years and the gold rush has begun. While the portable workspace is the “sexy” side of device independence (the press loves to cover UI wars and icon skirmishes), the growth and rapid spread of online computing is creating the need for an underlying device independent architecture today. It is becoming critical for services providers to stake their claim in the stack or risk customer disintermediation by their competitors.
In Part II, we’ll survey the different initiatives being advanced by the major portable workspace and service layer players and analyze their strengths and weaknesses. We’ll also focus more on the development of new service layers and analyze monetization and positioning within the device independent platform.