Personal Information Beyond the Desktop

May 18, 2007

I’ve been reading “Beyond the Desktop Metaphor: Designing Integrated Digital Work Environments“. The title is pretty self-explanatory I think. The book touches on some interesting projects in the PIM space, such as Lifestreams and Haystack. In the final chapter, they talk about the idea of the “personal information cloud”. More and more of the information that we interact with is on the network, and this doesn’t fit very well into the traditional desktop metaphor, where things have the illusion of having a “physical location” (in a specific folder, or on the desktop, etc.):

As users disperse and “destructure” their personal information, there is less need for the desktop/office metaphor to be the organizer of the information. We believe that the metaphor is being replaced by more abstract and sophisticated organizers, based on over a decade of experience by millions of people with information technology. Thus let us use the term Personal Information Cloud to refer to the “working set” of information that is relevant to the individual and his work.

This sort of concept is almost exactly what I’ve been thinking about for a while. When you have an idea, it’s nice to see that other people are thinking the same way. Especially when it’s really, really smart people. At the same time, it’s a little disappointing to realize that you’re not as original as you think. You know?

Anyways, they go on to list several requirements for this concept of a personal information cloud to be useful:

  1. Personal. It should contain most if not all information that is relevant to the individual and his activities.
  2. Persistent. It should be preserved.
  3. Pervasive. It should be always accessible from a variety of devices, programs, and services, i.e., it “follows the individual”.
  4. Secure. The information should be secure and private at an appropriate level. This is a significant issue when information is not held locally (although having information locally is not in itself assurance of privacy in a networked world).
  5. Referenceable. Each information object in the cloud should ideally have a unique ID (or permalink) and support a protocol for retrieval.
  6. Standardized. The information needs to be in standard formats to that it is usable by a variety of devices, programs, and services.
  7. Semantic. The cloud should be based on an extensible scheme of semantically rich metadata, so that it can be understood by a variety of programs and services in different contexts.

I’ve actually got all of these points scrawled down somewhere in my notebook. I think the ideas of persistence, pervasiveness, and referenceability are especially important, because that’s where most existing PIM solutions are lacking. Most PIM software is intended to be used on a single machine, which is obviously bad for pervasiveness and persistence. And web applications like GMail, although they are pervasive, can’t really be depended on to be persistent. Does Google guarantee that they will never delete my email? What happens if I want to move to a different provider? What if Mountain View sinks into the Pacific Ocean? And finally, referenceability is especially missing from most PIM software. Just like every web page has a URL, imagine if every piece of your personal information did too. As Hans Reiser would tell you, this greatly increases the expressive power of the information system.

See also: Aza Raskin’s Death of the Desktop presentation