Welcome to the 'Cloud Inflation' Era

Sometimes we need to pull our minds out of the here-and-now and engage in some deep thinking about the future. So for your next thought exercise, how do cloud inflation, subsidiary membranes, and information surfaces strike you as topics worth mulling over?

I know, I know -- what in the world am I talking about?

Odd as these subjects might sound, they are concepts you might want to clue yourself in on if you want to understand the future of business, and secure any given organization's role in it.

Such was the message longtime business consultant and industry visionary Francis McInerney, of North River Ventures and FutureCreators, delivered to members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants International gathered this week in Seattle for their annual conference. McInerney opened the conference with his keynote, "Cloud Inflation and You."

Let's start with that "cloud inflation" term referenced in the keynote title, and those information surfaces I mentioned in opening.

To define an information surface for a technology era, McInerney looks at the exponential growth in the number of devices multiplied by X the exponential growth in device power multiplied by the exponential growth in the number and power of applications. The information surface, miniscule for the mainframe era, has gotten broader and broader through the progression to the PC, Internet, "device big bang" and, now, "cloud inflation" eras. In today's cloud inflation era, "we have an information surface that is literally exploding," he said.

"All the cloud does is give the remotest person or thing access to unlimited computing power at marginal cost," he added. "With the iPhone, you're tapping supercomputing power for practically nothing. And this thing is just going to get more powerful, and there'll be more of them, ... for centuries into the future."

Centuries? The cloud is a disruptor unlike any we've seen since 1440 and the arrival of the Gutenberg printing press, which ripped Europe to pieces, McInerney said. "Even those who understand the minute details of that period could rack their brains and not find a single institution that survived the printing press intact. ... That's the power of cloud inflation."

Consider Uber as a case in point. It's just a cloud app, he said, but that the company shredded the taxi business is a function of cloud inflation. "Is Uber scalable? Yes. Is a taxi scalable? No."

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While you might see the cloud as a collection of servers, McInerney envisions it as three interacting "membranes":

  • The App Membrane -- Essentially, this is just the "sea of apps" out there, with each app being indifferent to each other, he said.
  • The App Enablement Membrane -- "The app enablement membrane is anything, anything, that will enable an app. It doesn't matter what it is because, just like in the app membrane, the app enablement membrane is completely indifferent to what's floating on it." Look at the smartphone as an example. Depending on the apps installed, your smartphone could be just a phone... or it coud be a medical device. This space is huge, and will grow without bounds, he said.
  • The App Delivery Membrane -- This is anything that connects the other two membranes to each other, from Bluetooth to fiber, McInerney said.

"Cloud membranes have no limits, though they are not infinite, just like our universe itself," he added. And they always interact, creating opportunity.

Apple, like no other, fully understands this model. Envision a bullseye with the app membrane at the center, encircled by the app delivery membrane, which in turn is surrounded by the app enablement membrane. "All Apple has done is rotate around the delivery membrane circle" -- first with PCs/laptops and MP3/MP4 players in markets of tens of billions of dollars, and then with tablets and phones in $100 billion markets. The next market will be in the trillions, with smart TVs, cars, healthcare, and so on, he explained.

Take into account days' sales in inventory, which is a measurement of the number of days it will take a company to sell all of its inventory, and "you realize these folks understood scale and scaling dimensions way before anybody else, and got it way better," McInerney said. Apple's days' sales in inventory hasn't been above something like four since 1998, whereas any competitors' figure is more along the lines of 30 to 35, he explained.

Playing a similar role of scale enabler is just what communications consultants -- and I would argue anyone involved in informing cloud strategy -- must do, McInerney said. "You're in the business of enabling profit opportunities at cloud scale by showing clients how to manage the information surface on which their businesses must depend."

So don't think you're in the business of communications technology, he advised, because you're not. "You're in the business of monetizing information surfaces, or enabling their monetization. One way or another, if cash doesn't flow better, there's a problem."

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