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A Love Story: Devices and Cloud – Perfect Together

Cloud is highly available, which means it remains “indifferent” regardless of where, when, or who is using the service

We've heard about Google Glasses. And we've heard about Apple iWatch. And yes, we've heard about people embedding cellphones into shoes [1]. Once again, the term "wearable computing" is becoming a hot topic in news and literatures. Some have even announced that the age of wearable technology is here [2]. The world is surely changing fast. Aren't we still debating who makes the best smartphones and the best tablets? What's going on here?

The foreseeable booming of wearable computing is just another chapter of the unstoppable fusion process between cyber space and reality. Eventually, machine computing will become ubiquitous, and the boundary between human bodies and devices will fade away. This is a vision shared by many scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs and Hollywood writers. It's becoming a reality faster than we might have expected. Devices will no longer be just peripheral augmentations, but be inextricably intertwined with human lives.

Then, what's stopping mobile phones and tablets to play such roles? It turns out to be something simple - it's because we are "using" these devices. And because we are "using" the devices, we are unconsciously rejecting these devices from being part of ourselves. After all, "using" tools is not a foreign concept to us, and we intuitively know that tools are not part of us. However, the way we interact with a wristwatch is rather different. First, we rarely think "let me use my watch to look up time." We simply think, "Let me look up time (by looking at my watch)." The difference is subtle, however, a significant one in the way that we are not engaging an explicit "use" action, but a natural "look" action, which is an rudimentary function of our body. Second, we have to look out for battery consumption of mobile devices to keep them operational. Just as we don't consciously manage our body parts, the simple fact that we have to care about availability of these extra capabilities reminds us of the alien nature of these devices. On the other hand, we never turn off our watches, nor do our watches go into sleep mode by themselves. The functionalities provided by our watches are always available to us, making them natural augmentations of our own capabilities.

A wearable device is not a brand-new concept [3]; however, the term gets a new twist at the dawn of cloud computing. In this new word, wearable devices are connected devices. The characteristics of cloud and devices make them a perfect match: Cloud extends the capability of devices by providing infinite processing power, unlimited storage, and unparalleled opportunities for collaboration among devices. On the other hand, devices supplement cloud by bringing contextual relevancy, data collection, and everywhere access to the table.

Cloud is highly available, which means it remains "indifferent" regardless of where, when, or who is using the service. A search for "the best Italian restaurants" around the globe is rarely useful. However, when you issue the same search from your device, the search criteria can be enriched by contextual information - is the restaurant nearby based on your geo-location? Is the restaurant currently open based on current day and time? Is it within your price range based on your spending history? The list goes on and on, and you automatically get much more fine-tuned, personalized results simply because of the personal attachment provided by the device. In other words, devices make cloud services relevant to real lives.

Devices are up close and personal, which means they are seriously "tunnel-visioned." For example, a thermometer reports only temperature readings. Without cross references with other data such as location and time, the reading is barely useful by itself - 40 °C in a teapot and 40 °C on a forehead have very different implications. Even with more powerful devices such as mobile phones, social attributes of their owners can't be captured by the devices alone. Humans are social animals. Being able to reflect on the rich social contexts is a very important capability of mobile phones acquired only when they are connected to cloud. Let's go back to the restaurant example: with the assistance of cloud, your mobile phones are able to tell you how others think about the restaurant; You'll be able to query if the restaurant has enough seating capacity for your party; you may reserve seats or place your orders directly; and you can take a picture of your dish and show it off to your friends.

At the business level, devices and cloud have interleaved connections as well. Cloud services follow a very different business model compared with what is for traditional software. Traditional software is a high-margin industry, while cloud services are a high-volume-low-margin industry. For cloud platform to really prosper, it has to build up the critical mass. The scale of this critical mass exceeds all the scales traditional software vendors can ever imagine. Cloud services need to reach out to a large number of clients simply to keep the business model viable. Here we are not talking about numbers in hundreds or thousands. Instead, we are looking at the scale of millions or even billions. How to reach this number? Cloud platform vendors need to look beyond PCs, beyond tablets, and beyond smartphones. They need to make cloud ubiquitous. They need to reach out to every aspects of human lives. Hence, they will be the deciding force that finally merge the cyber space and reality together.

Just as I won't be surprised if Google makes a Google Jacket, or Apple makes an iCollar for dogs, I won't be surprised if your refrigerator automatically orders some meatballs for you because it thinks you are probably going to make pasta tonight. I can easily imagine your water bottle follows you around when you jog through the park. Devices and cloud are perfect together, and their love story has just began.


  3. Mann, Steven (1998): Humanistic computing: "WearComp" as a new framework and application for intelligent signal processing. In Proceedings of the IEEE, 86 (11) pp. 2123-2151

More Stories By Haishi Bai

Haishi Bai is a Windows Azure Technical Evangelist at Microsoft. Ever since he wrote his first program when he was 12, the world for him has always been all about software and services. In his 16 years of professional life, he’s been engaged in various areas ranging from finance to public safety, and he’s taken on different roles such as architect, development lead, and project manager. He’s also a passionate educator who loves to share his knowledge. He runs a technical blog at that focus on cloud technologies. The site attracts over 60,000 views monthly. His Twitter handle is @HaishiBai2010.

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