The exobrain

stylized brainBack in 2009 Scott Adams of Dilbert fame described his concept of the exobrain in a blog post. He argued that his smartphone was an extension of his brain used for offloading data and outsourcing simple mental tasks. When Dilbert speaks the world listens, and the post is often cited. In later posts he expanded the concept into organizational learning – the organization’s culture is a data store. Pairing organizational culture with data storage and retrieval is nothing new. It’s called knowledge management.

As technology advances and culture evolves the idea of the exobrain as a physical device becomes outdated. Though my laptop, tablet, and smartphone have some specialized capabilities that give them individual exobrain duties, their duties converge more often than diverge. I can communication via text, voice, and video with all three. All three can search the Internet. And all three can store text and rich media. Most interestingly, and most importantly in the case of a scatterbrain like me, no one of those devices represents a single point of failure. I can get through most days without any one of those, and many days without any two.

The same cannot be said of the services these devices access. Going a day without Gmail, Skype, or Dropbox is not so simple. The crucial data I’ve either uploaded to these service or chosen only to download as needed must be available 24/7. I can’t get anywhere without GPS. I wouldn’t even know where to go without access to my calendar. The implications of this shift from dependence on device to dependence on service are pretty astounding. Big players get this. Google is building a network of services that devices must access to be viable.

He who owns the platform wins. As device dependent as Apple’s business model is, it has invested heavily to make sure the necessary services for their devices, such as iTunes and MobileMe, are available to make those devices useful.

The ideal services are those like Gmail and Dropbox that are device agnostic. They become indispensable to the user very quickly. All data is available on all devices and is always current. The second tier of services are those like Evernote. It’s a great piece of note taking software with web tools and local apps for all the major device OSes, but the functionality of the apps varies from device to device. I can take notes on my PC, formatting them to be easily read, but should I access that note from my iPad I have to sacrifice rich text formatting – forever. Livescribe is a more distant second. It uses different data models on the Mac and PC, so simply syncing your notebooks on the cloud only works if you stay within a the same OS family. The utility of an application or service diminishes exponentially as the number of data files the user must manage increases. Thus, Livescribe is flirting with irrelevance if it’s unable to solve this problem.

The Holy Grail, which the top tier services are approaching, is to become a Rosetta Stone. The user needs this service as a bridge between workflows and devices. For example, I can read a Microsoft Word document on a Blackberry without any additional software purchases as long I store it on Google Documents.

As software and services evolve in the media and entertainment space, those tools that act as a platform – accepting all formats from all devices, and make their data available for viewing on the widest variety of devices will win. The standalone editor seat will become a museum piece. Frictionless collaboration is where we are heading.

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