Friday, 22nd March 2019

The end of the great file dynasty

By Tristan Rogers, CEO of Concrete, the global enterprise collaboration platform used by retailers including J Crew, Gap, Kate Spade, Tesco F&F, George and Marks & Spencer.

The advent of the desktop computer was the advent of electronic file based working. The Windows environment, cunningly piggy-backing on the sale of every desktop machine, introduced an intuitive, visual user interface and navigation via a "mouse". It transformed how users interacted with computers.

Part and parcel of this new paradigm, was a familiar semantic approach to organising information. To help with the transition from paper-based working to computer-based working, Microsoft introduced a lexicon of familiar analogies that smoothed our transition; the desktop, the folder and the file. And since the introduction of MS Office in 1988, the desktop and laptop computer have remained wedded to this approach.

With the introduction of the World Wide Web, the ability to author web pages became a new discipline. For many years, web publishers built their pages in the image of paper-based authoring, with columns and pagination, with no consideration for whether this off-line approach suited the online world. It wasn't until the blog that the web page started to take on its own identity. Continuous scrolling of a web page suited the browser environment better, and with hyperlinking, users could easily jump to relevant content simultaneously. The internet was starting to take on its own identity.

But it was with the introduction of smartphones and tablets that the pace of change really started to pick up. Limited screen real estate and the introduction of dedicated "apps" saw a new approach to aesthetic ergonomics, with "there's an app for that" becoming the colloquial reality. Information and functionality was now free of the desktop and was purpose built for the specific need of a given audience, on demand.

And by and large, this new mobile environment has no use for files, which lock information in a suitcase, delaying and compromising access when needed.

In parallel with mobile working and device advancement, internet connectivity and speed have improved enormously, spawning on-demand content services and cloud storage. Considerable investment has been placed into firms such as Spotify and Netflix, but also into cloud storage firms like Dropbox and Box, not to mention GDrive and MS OneDrive, promoting the convenience of storing all your digital files in one online filing cabinet. It is interesting to note, therefore, that on the one hand, the content providers have moved us away from file storage to media streaming on demand, whilst cloud storage vendors are actually facilitating the storage of files. When you consider how Netflix on-demand negated the need for Blockbuster and its "files" of films, or how the then up-start Spotify plateau'd the mighty Apple's iTunes market share by negating the need to download a music file, there is a body of evidence in our consumer lives that files of content are no longer needed or viable.

So in the recent wake of Box’s IPO, it is interesting to examine whether files in the form of Word, Powerpoint or Excel, should be viewed any differently to an iTunes MP3. Do we expect to be able to “download” words and numbers still, or can we simply work with them, alongside pictures, videos and audio in a cloud arena? There is no question that nigh on 30 years of Microsoft Office has produced a healthy back catalogue of files, now increasingly stored in one or many freemium cloud storage platforms. But then there was also a sizeable back catalogue of music and video files that have now vapourized from our shelves into one of many paid for cloud services.

Whilst the desktop/laptop computer remains a stronghold of authoring and “serious” work, the Windows environment and its file-based working is a pre-internet invention. What place does that have in our mobile app-ified world?

Considerable investment continues to be made in making the access and synchronisation of files easier on various devices, allowing users to open a file without downloading it. As the owner of Office, Microsoft now offers edit-ability of Word and Excel documents through the browser interface. Google Docs is a significant attempt to deliver cloud-first authoring of files, copying the Microsoft format of a word processor, a spreadsheet and a presentation.

But do we need files like these as much as we used to? With no more music or video files, why have Word, Powerpoint or Excel? Email has replaced the letter. Evernote has replaced notebooks. Neither of these tools produce files.

Netsuite, Salesforce, Workday, Squarespace, YouTube, eBay, Spotify and Facebook do not rely on files. And this is true of every cloud-first platform. With the consumerisation of IT in the enterprise, where MS Office remains king, it is only a matter of time before the ubiquitous Word, Excel and Powerpoint become an outmoded inconvenience. Tablets, phablets and seamless collation and curation of online content will rule, marking the next 15 years as the end of the great file dynasty.

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