Is this file sharing, a social operating system, or a mess?

In the interest of clarifying different trends in the business side of the social revolution, I am going to try to split some hairs. There is a growing awareness in business that the workforce is outfitting their devices — phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops — with unsanctioned file-sync-and-share, like Dropbox and Evernote. (I wrote about this earlier this week in Evernote launches Evernote Business and Guess what? Your workforce is using Dropbox. Yawn.)

The primary concern of some management folks is the possible security risks that company information, embedded in files, could potentially be compromised by a security glitch in one of these systems. Of course, companies like Box have been working for years with large enterprises to iron out the security kinks inherent in file-sync-and-share tools. And the issues surrounding computer security in a mobile world are not limited to these tools: they are endemic, and have to be handled at a non-technical level, through policies and procedures.

And now that Dropbox has a Dropbox for Teams version, and Evernote has released Evernote for Business, we can be sure that those firms will roll out the same security approaches that Box and other companies have developed.

So, we can — at least for the point of argument — imagine a not-too-distant future where file-sync-and-share is secure. So soon we will have a nearly universal, low-level social layer of collaboration, running outside — or conceptually below — other collaboration tools.

This is where things get complicated, because these files are also increasingly being shared in those higher-level,  project-oriented collaboration tools as well. And that’s why I have as the accompanying image for this piece a cat’s cradle: the two-person string game, where a sequence of moves on a loop of string leads to an elaborate ‘cradle’, but any misstep leads to a knotted mess.

Imagine I am sharing a folder on my drive directly with several coworkers, using Dropbox. And that later on, I also share some of the files in that folder in a work media tool, like Siasto, or a task management tool, like Asana. At that point strange things can happen, because groups that are unknown to each other could be sharing without being aware of it.

This sequence of events could lead to a grand mess, and is likely to cause headaches. But more importantly, this underscores a weakness at the operating system level. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others working on contemporary operating systems are backfilling from the old model to the new, but haven’t accepted the obvious:

  1. The old operating system paradigm — single user devices, loosely connected to the internet by applications — like browsers — is still the basis for today’s operating systems.
  2. While today’s operating systems may have some notion of file-sync-and-share built into them, it is limited to the increasingly passé idea of a local area network.
  3. Today’s devices are — for all intents and purposes — intended to be connected to the internet and potentially any person by ubiquitous connectivity, and files are just as likely to be shared than not.

As a result, I predict that future versions of Apple, Google, and Microsoft operating systems will provide the functionality of secure, scalable, and reliable file-sync-and-share, as well as the core social architecture necessary to make it work. Today’s efforts have not gone far enough, like Apple’s iCloud, and file-sync-and-sharing interoperability between operating systems will be a stumbling block. Nonetheless, I am betting that this layer — a social operating system layer — will be commonplace before 2015.

As those capabilities roll out — perhaps with the OS giants making acquisitions, like the over $550 million dollar offer that Box turned down last year — we will see a shift in the way that higher-level, project-oriented collaboration tools work, since they will rely on the primitives of these more capabale social operating systems.

And then we won’t find it so hard to tell where the cat begins and the cradle ends.