Files Are Like Fax Machines

Like fax machines, I think files are going to be around for a long time. But a growing number of people aren’t going to enjoy using them.

I first made this comparison in front of fellow startup companies at a Y Combinator event in summer 2010. Feeling underprepared in a room full of high achievers who had been told not to prepare, but had anyway, I summarized our new company Simperium in sixty seconds of train-of-thought pitch. Out came the comparison of files to fax machines.

It’s a comparison worth revisiting. Fred Wilson’s recent declaration that There Will Be No Files In The Cloud is a good place to start:

This is why I love Google Docs so much. I just create a document and email a link. Nobody downloads anything. There are no attachments in the email. Just a link. Just like the web, following links, getting shit done. I love it.

I agree, and others have expressed a similarly pessimistic outlook for files. We’re betting our business on this idea. The greatest strength of our app Simplenote is transparent, file-less syncing, and Simperium makes it easy for other developers to accomplish the same with their own apps.

I believe that in recent years, the frontend development of apps and devices has begun to outpace the backend progress of databases and networking. We’ve got these wonderful, intimate user experiences backed by comparatively clunky storage and transfer systems. The backend needs to catch up to the front; it’s dragging behind, necessarily attached, but weighty and unwieldy.

Only recently has a complete vision for ubiquitous apps begun to coalesce. It’s a holistic vision that includes frontend, backend, and hardware developments.

It’s not a crystal clear vision, though. We know the goal is some kind of mobile-friendly, multi-user, multi-app system for the storage and transfer of data across multiple devices. But, for example, Apple’s iCloud is a vendor-centric solution that preserves support for documents as files, whereas Simperium potentially supports any vendor’s devices and is a more radical departure from files. That each solution will also differ in its storage mechanisms, conflict resolution, account system, social features, and ease of use is also apparent, and important tradeoffs for these differences will abound.

Fred closes with:

And how do you elegantly morph from a file centric model to a document centric model? It won’t be easy, I’m sure of that.

That’s the crux of the problem, with elegance being a great yardstick for any solution. At Simperium, we certainly have our take on it, but there’s a surge of other activity in this space as well.

The exact fate of files in the coming decades is uncertain, but I predict we’ll hear a growing number of people complaining about them as they do about fax machines today. More likely, rather than complaining about files themselves, they’ll complain about apps that still rely on files in the same way we complain about organizations that still rely on fax machines.

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