Is It Time To Close The File?

Computer Files

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.

The Internet Takes On An Identity

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, and 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.

The Cloud Arena

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 Google Drive 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.

A Word Processor Is To Twitter What A Record Player Is To Spotify

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 sync all devices with the latest file or 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. It is a clunky experience, as Microsoft battles with its own file based working environment through a browser. But with the introduction of OneDrive, Microsoft perhaps hopes to ring fence the market that DropBox and Box have spent years courting. But where is the value in that?

Google Docs attempts to deliver cloud-first authoring of files, copying the Microsoft format of a word processor, a spreadsheet and a presentation. And with Google Drive, Google now pitches itself as a direct alternative to the newly packaged Microsoft Office 365. This seems a strangely unoriginal and unimaginative approach for a cloud first company with so much talent, money and resource. A Word Processor is to Twitter what a Record Player is to Spotify: an engine for processing media, instead of an interactive medium that one can communicate with a targeted audience.

Words do not need processing any more; we assume our device will spell check and provide alternatives and explanations. For the past 10 years, the consumer market has moved towards “connectivity”, whether the eBay marketplace, the PayPal payment network, or the FaceBook, Whatsapp social network. And, like the word processor, the same can be argued for the spreadsheet or the presentation tool. What are you trying to do and who are you wanting to share with? We no longer need utility tools that produce a file output. We expect a specific application to fast track our desires or needs directly to the audience that needs to see it and interact with it.

The Future…

So do we need files like these as much as we used to? With no more music or video files, why should we 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.

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.