Are Personal Data Control Products the 'Next Big Thing'?

By Peter Bernstein August 01, 2012

As the saying goes, “inquiring minds want to know!” It was thus with more than a little bit of interest that I read a piece on CNN’s technology site titled, “The emerging market that could kill the iPhone.”  The author had me with the headline.

So if you are like me the first few questions I wanted to know:

  • So what is a personal data control product?
  • How do they work?
  • Why are they an iPhone killer and major market disruptor that Google and Microsoft and others with growing eco-systems need to fear?

One question at a time

The answer to the first question it turns out was simple. Personal data control products (aka “personal data lockers”) are cloud-based vaults where our multiple online personae and personal information reside, and where under used-defined policy and rules, access and context mediation are performed. They are not products in the traditional sense, but are services that are part of the burgeoning personal data management market that I wrote a bit about earlier this year in covering start-up Aha! Now we are talking. Yes, they do pose a threat to device-based storage and access to our life-critical information.

How do they work is also intuitive. You would upload your life to the cyber vault (medical records, financial information, music libraries, games, etc.), surround it with policies, rules and security and access it anywhere, anytime, while in theory resting assured that your desires and privacy will not be invaded or compromised. It is the means by which your volition will be executed, i.e., your life will be parceled out according to your instructions based on contextual mediation of that vault as you see fit.

I think a good way to visualize all of this is, and why it is so disruptive potentially if it can be deemed a “trustworthy” solution is that you are substituting the iCloud and imitators for what I view as a vendor agnostic Virtual ME Cloud (V.ME Cloud).  And, to be sure the empires will strike back because they understand that if they do not host the virtual me, acting as the gateway/gate keeper of my multiple personae (think of this as ME is work mode, work group mode, community member, private individual and that all important “other”) and the dynamics of context and content mediation, they lose the ability to extract tolls/fees from those they host and those whom they wish to interact with. They also lose the ability to sell the richness of the transactional experiences they oversee. 

Anecdotally this is why Google wants “E”verything to be federated and easily accessible so you never leave their environment. It is also the driver behind Microsoft’s announcement that hotmail will now be “Outlook” mail universally. In other words, the quote in the article cited above from The World Economic Forum that this is like “money in the bank” is very apropos. And, it is no surprise that the race for exploitation of the V.ME opportunity is attracting a raft of start-ups.  

Where it gets sticky 

The CNN/Fortune article does a nice job of covering the landscape of who is doing what and investing in what and their vision of what the future holds. The quotes that struck me as worthy some pondering were as follows:

  • Drummond Reed, founder of, says a "killer app" will be the catalyst
  • Dave Siegel, author of Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business, argues these cyber vaults will eventually replace PCs, tablets, iPhones, and Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Macintosh operating systems. Yes, Google (GOOG) Android, too.

This is obviously a personal opinion but the “killer app” for the market taking off is already known and has been for many years. It goes by the name of “TRUST.” When consumers, just like in the enterprise market, trust that the cyber vaults are secure and trustworthy, this market could mature rapidly. However, as we all know trust is hard to earn, easily lost and almost impossible to regain if lost. Add to this ,the fact that those with malicious intent vaults as bank robber Willie Sutton stated many years ago “because that is where the money is.”   Hence, there is reason to believe that anyone who is not in this for the long-haul will become a victim of bloated expectations.  

On the latter point, I am reminded of a conversation I had back in the late 1970’s when I was a lobbyist for the nascent interconnect industry. AT&T (the old “Ma Bell”) had just introduced something called ACS (Advanced Communications Service). Today we would call it “hosted PBX.” The idea was that all of the intelligence that was on the customers’ premises would be handled in the AT&T network —which we would call the cloud. The independent PBX vendors I represented went before federal regulators and argued this would destroy an industry that was just getting going and stifle innovation. A famous regulator, who shall remain nameless here, looked at me and my clients and said, “I don’t know why you are here…The answer to the question as to where intelligence will rest and who will extract value is YES!” That was the last word and this individual turned out to be prescient on a variety of scores.

The point is that cyber vaults are going to be a nice and important addition to options we all have for managing our business and professional lives. As to what wins in the marketplace is unknowable and up for grabs, which is why we play the games. After all there is that little issue of TRUST that pervades this type of speculation. This is not just about how much I trust having things stored on a personal device vs. having some or all of them in the cloud, it is also about the perception as to the perceived value of doing this if the real intent seems to be the selling my transactional data, aside from what I might give permission to being sold from my vault, to third parties. 

The most fascinating part of all of this is that in an age where the Internet has already profoundly shifted the relationship between buyers and sellers to favor the buyers (you and me), there are two things we can count on. The first is that new relationships and business models are going to be tested in the market at a fast and furious pace because this is the Holy Grail on the path to profits and market supremacy. Second, as the article ends, the big guys can play it both ways, and if there is a demand for a cloud-based personal information management service the likelihood is that Apple will make it beautiful and the guys with the big online communities who have the most to lose will make a death match.

I can’t wait. We are indeed at a tipping point, and for the next 12-18 months we are going to have front row seats for what is likely to be viewed as one of the best and most important competitions of the decade.    

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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