Prominent New York VC Fred Wilson just posted an interesting and thought-provoking retrospective on 2014. He attempted to sum up some of the major trends in tech over the course of the last 12 months, and made some astute observations, such as “cyberwarfare … was the dominant theme of 2014” and “messaging is the new social media”.
One thing he got wrong though was his assertion that:
“We finally got rid of files. dropbox, google drive, soundcloud, spotify, netflix, hbogo, youtube, wattpad, kindle, and a host of other cloud based services finally killed off three letter filenames like mp3, mov, doc and xls.”
Fred isn’t the first to call time on the humble file – plenty of other commentators, technologists and websites have been sounding the death knell for the notion of files and hierarchical file systems for years – here’s a piece from 15 years ago doing just that. Despite our best efforts to replace them files soldier on, refusing to know when they are beat.
So why haven’t files died out ?
- Files make the world go round
If you peak under the hood of most of the world’s favourite operating systems you’ll find a hierarchical file system trying to break out. Android, Linux, OS X (which is built on top of UNIX) and Windows all use files to manage core system resources, and developers haven’t yet found a better paradigm for managing the complexity of building, shipping and maintaining a modern operating system. The notion of a “file system” even sits at the core of the most oft-quoted filesystem-killer – iOS:
- Your devices use files
In the last 10 years there has been an explosion of devices which we use to consume content – from smartphones, e-readers, tablets and (now) watches to internet-connected toasters. For these devices to display meaningful content to you (books, films, songs, photos) they use file formats defined by agreed-upon standards. Some of those standards are developed collaboratively between companies, others are proprietary, but their common feature is that somewhere along the line most of them use a “file” as the storage container for your content.
As we have more devices thrust upon us, so we can expect more standards, new file formats and more files – the rate at which they are developing is speeding up, not slowing down, and there is always a commercial imperative for companies to push for ownership of new standards (despite what they might claim to the contrary in public):
- Even “THE CLOUD” use files
“WAIT !” I hear you thunder – have you not heard of “THE CLOUD ™” and it’s endless capacity for slurping up data and allowing me to create unique, meaningful content ?
All of the killer apps that Fred mentions will use files at some level in order to bring you the service they provide. But what’s more interesting is that many of them still surface the notion of “the file” in their interfaces to end users – you can import MP3’s into Spotify, download videos from YouTube and upload audio files to your Kindle. Even Dropbox can’t quite bring itself to kill the file extension yet:
So whilst it’s tempting to think of “THE CLOUD ™” and apps as filesystem killers, they still rely on files as much as any other software of it’s type has done in the past. And many users still value the control this gives them.
What Fred really meant
I think what Fred was really getting at was that from the point of view of the average computer user files are becoming less important and less visible.
And it’s hard to argue with that – Most people couldn’t care less what underlying proprietary binary data format their words, videos, drawings and music are encoded in – they just want to be able to find, view and edit their stuff quickly and easily, on any device at any time. Anything that enables that is a “win” from the point of view of most consumers.
The data seems to back this notion up:
… or does it ?
Ceding control for convenience
Most people are prepared to cede control over their content for the benefits of convenience – The rise & rise of the largest consumer Internet companies are predicated on this fact. Facebook will organize your social life, YouTube your videos and GMail your email in return for mining your content to advertise at you. Many users aren’t aware they are making this trade but are happy since their lives improve as a result.
But what happens when Yahoo accidentally deletes all your photos, or your backup provider implodes, or you can’t play that new computer game on Christmas Day, or your [insert app-du-jour] is deadpooled overnight ? Who owns your data then ? Can you even get it out before it gets wiped ?
This is to say nothing of digital obsolescence – It comes to something when the inventor of Powerpoint can no longer open his own files because the software he originally created no longer lets him.
The magnificently brief history of computing has seen wild swings in where your files live – the mainframe ? the minicomputer ? A tape drive ? the PC ? The Netbook ? The Smartphone ? Your USB drive ? Or SD Card ? It would be naïve to think that we are necessarily at the end of that cycle with “THE CLOUD ™” or the latest mobile app.
Recently we have seen the beginnings of a backlash against too much centralisation of data thanks to the privacy issues raised by Snowden – ironically one of Fred’s own investments (DuckDuckGo) is something of a poster-child for that movement. It’s too early to tell where it will go, but the notion that you can still own your own files is a powerful one for many – we haven’t got rid of files yet.
Full disclosure: We provide services to allow business and individuals to convert files to and from 100s of different formats so we clearly have a horse in this race. If you’re a developer we’re just about to launch an awesome API to take away the pain of that process – you should check it out 🙂
Happy New Year !
Chris Whyley – Co-Founder, Zamzar.