This entry was originally published on the CloudSource blog in November 2011

The other day I received a message requesting me to comment on a “vision” of the super mobile worker. The enquiry started with this statement: “I wish to join a growing community of mobile people, who live and work completely off their mobile devices such as iPads and iPhones, which enables them to drift endlessly through countries with no fixed abode, although they remain registered in their home country for income tax, banking, citizenship and perhaps one or two other reasons.” 

The devices required were described as:

  • A password-protected mobile which has a GPS, etc., on a network like Google Talk which is global and just about free, and which can take good-quality still photos
  • A waterproof, shock-proof tablet/iPad/a-Pad item which is the link to super-secure encrypted cloud storage, and which can take decent movies

And finally the needed cloud requirements would be “a very secure online system, to store all my files and folders, so that my office becomes mobile. I would access my online office totally by way of an iPad or something similar. I would need to be able to upload, store, arrange and edit – all the normal things one does in an office. It would ALL need to be done online, securely, accessible from anywhere, with reliable backups and human support where needed etc. It would need a very large disk storage space for text, sound, movie, images and all sorts of other files (my entire office, which is 70GB at the moment). In addition, I would want to enter the cloud via secure means, and only then get access to the range of websites I frequent: banks, tax department, email, my website, colleagues’ websites etc – all to be done inside the cloud so that I can access internet from WiFi and other public spaces, securely.”

Actually, most of what is described above can be made available today using public cloud services. Windows Live for example provides reasonably large disk spaces for free, e-mail, access to most of the popular office applications etc. So, technically, this vision is not impossible. HP’s e-Print offering even allows you to print from the cloud directly on a printer using an e-mail address. However, there are a couple non-technical issues that may limit the practicality of this vision, at least in the foreseeable future. Let’s look at what is needed in more details.

4 necessities for truly super mobile worker

First, such vision implies constant and ubiquitous access to the internet. Believe me, that’s not the case. I’m not talking about the cost of data roaming, but as I write this blog entry while on a TGV train running at 300km (200 miles) per hour, I can tell you that wireless access in such situations is challenging at best. To implement such vision, we first need to make internet available everywhere and make the connection to the internet easy and cheap. Sure you have hotspots all around the countries, but each time you need to connect, approve terms and conditions, enter credit card numbers etc. Or you need to use a service as Boingo to facilitate connection.

Second, consider the security implications. The vision repeatedly mentions security and encryption. In a section I did not quote, it goes as far as speaking about military grade encryption. Unfortunately governments do not allow such levels to be used for commercial services as they want to make sure they can always unencrypt the data if required. The public cloud claims to be extremely secure, but unfortunately lacks transparency. So, it’s up to the user to trust the system, and that is something I leave to your appreciation.

Third, we have compliance. The legal system has not embraced the cloud yet, and there is no indication it will soon. Regional and country specific legislation associated with privacy, health, financial and other data makes it rather difficult to be fully compliant in the cloud. Service providers addressing these issues are appearing on the market, but it may make the service less than optimal. If you are in Russia and rely on services provided by a datacenter in Chile to take an example, well your latency may not be ideal. There is however a second issue related with compliance. And this one is associated with the way your cloud service provider respects your privacy. Many of the social media and public cloud providers have demonstrated very little respect for your privacy. Do you really want your service provider to track you around the globe? Again that is a question you have to answer.

And fourth, is the iPad or an equivalent device the tool that allows you to support all your business and private activities? I have tried a tablet, and frankly my answer is no. I don’t find it easy to create presentations, manipulate spreadsheets, etc. on a tablet. No it cannot replace my portable laptop at the moment.

So, the vision is extremely attractive, but four elements need to be addressed.

  • First the internet should become ubiquitous and easy/cheap to access. That’s quite feasible.
  • Second, the public cloud providers need to accept that, to be trusted, they will have to share how they secure their environments. They also will have to demonstrate greater respect for the privacy of their users/consumers. That’s probably a little more difficult, but if we, as users, choose the most respectful ones, they will understand quickly.
  • Third, legislation needs to be adapted. Cloud related elements should have a consistent legislation across the globe. That’s another challenge all together.
  • And then lastly, we have to develop a true “window to the cloud,” allowing us to be productive and perform work while using the cloud to our benefit. At some moments in time we need portability as in a tablet, at others, the ease of use of a PC. So, why not combine both devices, create a device that looks like a PC, but where the screen can be taken out and used as a tablet when required. WiFi, Bluetooth, 3/4G communications should be included with the screen, while a powerful processor should be available in the base. The two should work seamlessly together when connected; giving me the ease of use I require to perform complex tasks. Applications on such device should be able to continue operate when the cloud is not available, limiting productivity exposure to the cloud.

Depending on the nature of my work, on the sensitive nature of the data I manipulate and on the compliance requirements associated with the business processes I execute, I may or may not be able to start today. Ultimately I need four things:

  • A network backbone allowing me to access my information anywhere, anyway, anytime, and a stable internet service provides that. The instability of mobile internet is the limiting factor.
  • A secure repository in which I can maintain my information, and that transfers the information back and forth in a highly encrypted way. What is important is to ensure I’m  happy with the level of security provided. So the lack of transparency of the security/compliance associated with the existing services (Google Docs, Windows Live etc.) may be a potential barrier.
  • A set of applications I can “consume” when required and that manipulate my information in a secure manner. Here also, lack of transparency in the public cloud is limiting adoption
  • Last but not least, a “window to the cloud” that allows me to perform my work and interact with my information and the services I consume. The available devices are going in the right direction, but frankly I haven’t found the converged device yet.

The technologies are getting there, it’s up to me to assess whether what is offered today addresses my needs in availability, security, privacy and compliance.

So, this is how I would comment on this vision. Do you agree with me? Are you sensitive to some of the points I make? Let me know.