Without ado, let’s jump right into this one. The opinion voiced in the title is certainly not a popular one. Cloud services are proliferating and by all rights would seem to be what all media is headed towards. But I believe it’s not for two key reasons.
Cloud services, for those unfamiliar, are basically services that remotely story your data and allow you to access it via the internet, which frees you from having to maintain the data yourself, either through physical media like CDs or DVDs or through hard drives. Apple’s iCloud does this for iTunes (and more), OnLive is a relatively new service doing this for video games, and you may remember some Windows commercials from not too far back. Cloud services are great in that they allow the user to access their own data (movies, music, documents, etc.) from more places and with less hardware.
But cloud services also require persistent high-speed internet to stream that data. Now this might not seem like a big deal in the days of ever quickening internet connections and smartphone proliferation. But this is exactly the first of the reasons why I don’t think that cloud services are going to replace personal storage.
The long and short of it is that we are physically running out of bandwidth. With the combined requirements of TV, radio, internet, and cell phones, we are rapidly filling all the space within the electromagnetic spectrum in which we currently know how to transmit data for these devices. (I’m not going to go into more detail about this, but for a bit more of an explanation, check this out.)
Now, why is this a problem?
As more people get more devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.), and as these devices store less data within themselves because they are reliant on cloud services (such as a laptop with no hard drive or flash memory), internet usage will increase exponentially; or, at least, the desire for internet usage. But because there won’t be enough bandwidth, streaming won’t be possible. It’s not that streaming takes any more bandwidth than downloading the same thing. I’m not imagining a world where iTunes dies and we return to having to go to the store for any song or movie we want. But anyone who has ever tried to watch a streaming TV show on a cruddy internet connection knows how frustrating it can be to have 20 minutes of TV take an hour to watch. Streaming requires lots of bandwidth at a particular moment. Slow downloads can be frustrating, too, but they don’t carry the same expectation of immediacy that streaming does. And beyond that, once something is downloaded, it isn’t reliant on some provider across the sea of the internet to continue providing the content.
Which leads me to my second reason. Perhaps the biggest limitation of storing digital content (i.e. downloading something) is hard drive space. Hard drives of a terabyte (1000 gigabytes) or two are readily available today, but even those fill up quickly if we start putting a bunch of HD movies and TV series on them. Now, we could build bigger hard drives, but they would be cumbersome and prone to overheating. You could hardly fit a terabyte of storage into an iPhones, which for comparison currently maxes out at 64 gigabytes.
So what does this have to do with surpassing cloud services?
IBM researchers recently created a hard drive able to store a single bit of data that was – get this – 12 ATOMS large. That’s incredible. And while they acknowledged that this was at a very low temperature and to achieve similar results at room temp would require more like 150 atoms, this is still orders of magnitude smaller than the number of atoms required to store a bit of data in current hard drives (for some explanation as to why, check out this article).
Essentially, this is significant because within the coming decade the size of huge hard drives is going to shrink exponentially. Imagine being able to carry every movie, every TV series, every song, and every document you own on a thumb drive. Or on you smartphone. Likely, it will be possible.
Now, this doesn’t entirely replace the convenience of cloud services, but considering the lock on bandwidth we’ll soon be experiencing, I’d argue that it’s a far more viable solution to our storage issues. If everything you need is easily and locally accessible there will be far less of a streaming stress on our internet bandwidth.
Clearly, there are more issues to be worked out, and just because we’re about to have better hard drives doesn’t mean we’re not suddenly going to stop using Hulu. I imagine cloud services will persist in some form. But for the above reasons, I don’t think they will every meaningfully replace local storage and revolutionize the media industry in the way that some have predicted.