Coming soon to an operating system near you: file sync-and-share

Last week, Evernote announced a new product, Evernote for Salesforce (see Evernote for Salesforce announced), which connects the popular document repository platform with the post popular CRM application. This is interesting for more than the first-order effects, the benefits to Salesforce and Evernote users. It’s it the most recent example of a rising trend, in which the new architecture of work management will be based on the dynamic that all work is distributed and social.

Consider the emergence of solutions like Evernote — a tool for people to collect snippets of information, links, scribblings, images, scans of business cards — and to store and organize them in ways personally relevant to the user, using tags, folders, and naming conventions. These can be synced across all a user’s devices, and shared with others in later versions, like Evernote for Business. This is paralleled by the rise of other not dissimilar tools like Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, Hightail, and so on, that support the syncing and sharing of files — created by whatever other tools — across what amounts to be a virtual, distributed operating system.

The emergence of these tools is actually the backpatching of a flaw in our operating systems, which are still based on the 20th century premise of a local file system, and relative ignorance of the web. Smarts about the web is not built into the operating systems on our laptops and desktop computers, although those on our companion devices are somewhat more web-savvy. But they all force the user to wrestle with files as if they are fixed, and not distributed across devices. We leave that to specialized applications, who compete for our trade, and who have created a divided world of contending distributed virtual file systems.

One of my earliest programming projects in grad school was to create a hierarchical file system on some truly ancient computer that Boston University had lying around. Imagine: the native file system was a single flat namespace. So I programmed a file directory, allowing folders and nesting. And then I and others were able to create modern style programs for that machine. Basically, I backpatched a logical flaw in the operating system.

And that’s what Evernote, and the others are doing. They are constructing programs that allow users to operate as if files, notes, images, and so on are being managed in a giant distributed file system, one that sits at the center of our world of work (and play, too), and where the dumbness of today’s operating systems can be overlooked, to a degree.

The major vendors of operating systems — Apple, Microsoft, and Google — have entered this marketplace in recent years, and are parroting the offerings that these other newcomers have dreamed up. Google Drive, Apple iCloud, and Microsoft Skydrive offer somewhat contrasting approaches which in the final analysis are competitors. But what they should do, and what they will inevitably get around to doing, is to build file sync-and-share capabilities into the operating systems.

Consider a not-too-far-in-the-future versions of OS X, in which iCloud is no longer an app, but a set of low-level capabilities. For example, I can create a folder (in a future version of the Finder), and simply share that folder with other people from my Contacts, or indicate that I want this folder synced with my other devices. In those cases, other people and other devices would receive notifications about their ability to access that folder. The next time I turn on my not-too-far-in-the-future iPhone, the synchronization of that folder would start running in the background.

And what if my device was an Android tablet instead of an iPhone? Obviously, the various operating systems would have to interoperate. They won’t at first, but ultimately they will.¬†And then, Evernote would be relegated to being a relatively minimal editing tool sitting on top of the vast distributed file system implemented by iOS, Android, Chrome, and Windows. And the market share for Box, Dropbox, Hightail, and the other file sync-and-share apps would collapse, although a few of them would likely be acquired to become the plumbing for Apple, Google, and Microsoft implementations.

Most people can’t remember back to the time when email services couldn’t intercommunicate, but I can. And they also don’t recall when Mac and MS-DOS file systems were incompatible, so that a Windows formatted floppy couldn’t be opened on a Mac.

In a strange way, we’ve come all the way around to this, a return to a world of silos. You’re using Google Drive to share folders with me, but I want to use Box, and another friend is sharing files from Evernote.

Building this into the OS’s will also mean that they become social at their core. They’d be implementing one of the most important aspects of our social networks: the network defined by who we share files with. (And presumably, we want to share comments about those documents, and a stream of updates about what’s in those documents, and… you get the picture: social operating systems would be next.)

The first operating system vendor to bake these capabilities into their OS is going to gain a serious market advantage in the business space. Imagine I could more easily share — securely and reliably — files with my coworkers in a way that also guaranteed back-up and recovery, and it did so in a way that could be managed both by the individual (for personal files) and by company administrators (for business files). Why haven’t Google, Apple, and Microsoft implemented this yet?