[CEO Friday] The Future of Cloud Computing: What’s Next?

David Barrett —  August 15, 2014 — 1 Comment
Cloud Computing

With ambient services, companies will be able to predict where you’re headed, before you get there.

This is a pretty popular topic, and since I’ve been asked this question a lot, I wanted to share my thoughts on paper.

The future of cloud computing is what I would call “ambient services.” What this looks like in real life: over time, cloud services will look less like Google Search, and more like Google Now. 

The Cloud – Past, Present, Future

Stepping back, the evolution of computing can be summarized as an inexorable trend away from systems “reacting” to your input and more toward systems “proactively” anticipating your needs. The original mainframe systems were “time-sharing” and only had time to answer one question for one person at a time, in tiny slices. Desktop computers gave their full attention to a single user, but only so long as they were powered on and you were sitting in front of it. Cloud services gave rise to 24/7 services catering to your needs, and then mobile made these services accessible everywhere.

From these services, I believe the next step in that evolution are services so pervasive, so aware, and so reliable that you simply forget they’re there. They’re not some “cloud service” operating somewhere far away; they’re “ambient services” that surround and assist you continuously.

Apple vs. Google: The Past

In an ideal world, Siri would already know. Photo credits: Apple

In an ideal world, Siri would already know.
Photo credits: Apple

Siri was the first serious attempt at creating an ambient service; inspirational in its vision but falling short due to a lack of context. On the other hand, Google used its massive trove of information to create Google Now, the first truly ambient service. Google Now has so much latent awareness — of what you are doing, what you’ve done in the past, and what you’re likely to do in the future — that it doesn’t need to wait for you to ask it a question; it anticipates and resolves your needs before you know you have it.

Apple vs. Google: The Present

The problem with ambient services is that very, very few people can do them right. Google succeeded where Apple has failed (and continues to fail) because of data. Apple has by far the best user experience, making it fast, easy, and fun to find the correct button to press to accomplish what you want. In contrast, Google Now has no buttons, it’s just there. Google Now doesn’t need to ask you to press any buttons, because it already knows what button you would press — so why even show it?

Apple vs. Google: The Future

Pre-ambient systems like Apple will continuously get ever more complex, because more functionality means more and more buttons. However, ambient services like Google Now will get ever simpler: the more the service knows, the better it can anticipate your needs, and the fewer questions it will need to ask you to do *more* for you.

Who Will Lead the Charge?

So if “ambient services” are the next big thing, who will lead the charge? Google, obviously, but who else? I’d look to any service accumulating a trove of valuable data so massive and boring that nobody would pay attention to it otherwise.

Take search for example. Today we see search as “obviously” the most valuable real estate on the internet, but it wasn’t at all obvious when Google started. Recall that Google was the 25th search engine, launched when Yahoo dominated the skyline. Google didn’t even attempt to compete in the public search engine space and instead was focused on enterprise search appliances (a business model that failed spectacularly, by the way). They couldn’t raise money, and couldn’t sell the company, not for even $1M.

It was only in desperation that Google was forced to see what we now realize is obvious: an individual’s search history for tells us an enormous amount about their past preferences, their current concerns, and their future needs. This realization led not just to AdWords, but to a company built on data aggregation and normalization — a company that scours the internet (and the physical world) for anything it can possibly learn, indexing it for easy access, and offering it back to the user at a keystroke. That in itself is why Google would be the first to develop a true ambient service as they’re the only ones with enough data and awareness to pull it off.

What’s Next?

As for who does it next, clearly other search engines will follow suit. However, none of them currently know more than Google, so none can really hope to compete with Google Now. Rather, you need to find someone who is aggregating and normalizing vast sums of previously inaccessible data — data that Google isn’t indexing — and presenting it back to the user for action wherever they are: at home, at their desk, and on the road.

As you can imagine, I feel my own space is a pretty good candidate for ambient services. We’re working hard to make that future come true, but I’m sure we’re not alone. Regardless, somebody’s going to crack ambient services – probably several parties – and optimize it for different contexts based on the ambient awareness those parties have already obtained. Whether in a few months or a few years, who can say, but someday soon we’re going to look back on today’s cloud services in the quaint way we look at yesterday’s desktop applications.

Personally, I can’t wait.

David Barrett


Founder of Expensify, destroyer of expense reports, and savior to frustrated employees worldwide.

One response to [CEO Friday] The Future of Cloud Computing: What’s Next?


    great post! you’re definitely right, this is going to be a huge, inevitable shift that’s probably still underappreciated. i actually worked on this a bit myself on my last project at google (common infrastructure for now and a number of other products), so i ended up thinking along similar lines a bit: https://snarfed.org/2013-05-31_fighting-information-overload-and-beyond##potential

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