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Frank Gillett
Frank Gillett
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How Will You Manage Your Digital Self?

You can't keep track of all the digital content you generate. In the next five years, expect vendors to come to the rescue with digital-self services.

As an individual, you create, exchange, receive and generate a sea of digital information.

Think of your communications, documents, photos, blog posts and music. Add everything you're creating or working on at your job. Then add everything you've done on social networks like Facebook. Mix in account information, from your mobile phone company to your insurance company to online retailers such as Amazon. Layer on crucial personal information like your tax filings and your mortgage and it's overwhelming -- especially when you want to get access to this information from any of your growing collection of work and personal devices.

Managing all of this content is a growing problem for all of us. It's also a problem for CIOs and business technology (BT) organizations that must deal with individuals maintaining their own caches of digital content, including company content, using vendors such as Dropbox that the company hasn't selected and doesn't control. This will get even more complex as more new services spring up to help individuals manage their digital content.

[ Do we need more self-destructing digital content? Read This Email Will Self-Destruct: AT&T Seeks Patent. ]

Basically, the complete collection of digital "stuff" that matters to individuals is their digital self. The digital self is not just your work and personal computer files. It includes all of the complex and varied digital information that you and the organizations you deal with generate. Already, 77% of U.S. online adults report using one or more personal cloud services to store or manage their communications or content, and this doesn't even count their ubiquitous Web-based email accounts. Forrester divides this wide variety of digital information into four categories of content that make up the digital self:

Created. Content that you author such as messages, contacts, photos and presentations.

Mutual. Content and information you purchase from, create with, or share with providers.

Received. Transaction and activity records sent to you by companies you do business with.

Recorded. Records and data about your behavior collected and analyzed by others.

Challenges And Opportunities In Managing The Digital Self

Here's the dynamic. As people use more mobile devices, they worry more about losing data on those devices. And they become frustrated that more of their "stuff" -- their digital self -- is not available when and how they need it on all their work and personal devices.

These factors drive people to put more of that content online in services like Google Drive, Evernote or Microsoft SkyDrive. Workers use these services for work content, whether approved by their companies or not. But once all this content is in cloud services, people have challenges managing it, collaborating around it, backing it up, linking it with data in other services, keeping it private and secure, and generally getting additional value out of it. That's because current personal cloud services are really just storage automation services that have little content awareness and insight into what the individual is trying to accomplish.

The challenges of managing digital selves represent a big business opportunity for both giant Internet companies and startups. They're angling to get closer to the customer by adding more context and capabilities. These services for the digital self such as the capabilities in offerings like Tipbit, Otixo, Intuit's Mint, and Google Now will define the next generation of online interaction. But as this competition intensifies, companies will jockey for position, cutting in on each other's turf as they vie to be more essential to the customer.

Because all this content is digital, there are no barriers to entry in this competition. Three forces will heat up the competition: 1) a drive to aggregate, combine and orchestrate across multiple services to make new features possible; 2) a desire to get closer to the customers' core needs; and 3) the ability to drive new business models, and gather customers and masses of data to make money from advertising and premium services. Look for these dynamics to develop in three stages.

Stage 1: Satisfying simple needs (2008 to 2013).
Consumers moved from managing their content based on the device to a cloud-based model where the device didn't matter.

Five years ago, expanding device diversity (iPhones, iPads, multiple PCs) drove people to start putting data into the first personal cloud services. Services for file syncing and sharing exploded, with Dropbox amassing more than 175 million users worldwide by July 2013. Other services arrived, most enabled by flexible, inexpensive cloud infrastructure from Amazon Web Services. Services became more diverse than just file sync, like Evernote for saving, organizing and searching for notes and Apple's iCloud for general personal content and preferences inside many different applications.

Stage 2: Services for the digital self (2014 to 2016).
People using different services begin experimenting with intelligent applications that do more than just store and provide access.

In this stage, providers will help individuals search, organize and manage across many digital-self services, not just one. And new vertical services players will enter the market, offering an overview of an individual's financial, retail or medical life by maintaining their data in these areas. These vertical services will function as digital advisors, similar to how financial or health advisors now work in the physical world. The battle for managing digital-self services will cause a lot of expansion and poaching as providers compete for a maturing market.

Stage 3: Curated ecosystems (2017 to 2019).
Ecosystems of services for the digital self emerge in which a core provider offers a range of integrated services.

The expansion stage in the middle of the decade will lead to a shakeout. Buyers, having started out with a variety of automated and intelligent services, will become annoyed with trying to manage services that don't work well together. They will also become frustrated with paying for a bunch of premium services and will consolidate the number of services and providers they have to manage.

These curated ecosystems don’t yet exist in a form we recognize. But we can see early hints in what Amazon does to personalize your shopping experience and to upsell the Amazon Prime service for shipping, movies and Cloud Drive. Other examples include how Google complements its core offerings with API interfaces that other parties can build on, such as Rapportive to add social profiles to Gmail. Facebook Connect, Dropbox APIs, and Evernote Market are other emerging examples of curated ecosystems that will mark the late stages of the digital self.

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