The Killer Feature Every Cloud-Based App Should Have

As the cloud makes our file storage systems more segmented, a third-party app needs to think carefully about how interacts with other apps and workflows–not just self-contained features.

The Killer Feature Every Cloud-Based App Should Have

When the file system becomes abstracted, a productive UI is what matters most. And because mobile devices are limited to one screen at a time, it’s crucial that a mobile OS have a great interface for executing workflows between apps in a way that makes sense. Apps are by definition simple task-oriented software, so to complete a sophisticated task, you need to string them together the way you might with an iPad, passing a file from Dropbox to GoodReader or Pages.


So despite what this guest author from Microsoft says on Wired, the cloud isn’t enough. It’s a fallback. The cloud is crucial when you’re risking data loss, or on the road without access to local storage, or when your machine can’t quite hold all the stuff you have. While you’re actually using your brain to do meaningful work, however, it probably doesn’t matter if you have a connection or not. Working from an airplane is a powerful use-case for the cloud because it shows that you have the freedom to go offline and sync up later. Unlike the VPN systems a lot of businesses are used to, it’s easy come, easy go.

I’m a Microsoft employee so you should apply the necessary filters to what I’m about to say, but here goes. With Windows 8 on multiple tablets and laptops, and a Windows phone, and Office apps that run full-strength when they can and in the browser when they can’t, and SkyDrive syncing everywhere, and a People hub that unites all my email and Facebook and Twitter and Skype contacts across my cloud of devices and services, I’m a happy camper. If all you’ve heard about Windows 8 is complaints about the start screen then you’re missing the real story. It’s an operating system that thinks rather deeply about the personal cloud and works hard to make it real.

What’s more important than where files live is how productive you can be with them–and that’s one reason Windows Phone has stumbled even as more users move to smartphones and cloud services. Until recently, it didn’t allow app developers to position their programs as links in a longer chain of actions. Windows 8 (Apollo) ameliorated the problem by adding some deep hooking, like the kind allowed for Skype. But it will take a long time before the Windows app developer community comes together and starts forming these partnerships.

In iOS, developers use hooks to connect their apps to one another; here are some examples from Instagram. Android developers can use intents to bind together different apps, or different components inside the same app. In Android and iOS, it’s easy for developers to team up this way, each of them specializing on a certain component of a larger task flow, allowing the user to custom build their own little file assembly line. Another great thing about hooks is that they let native apps connect to mobile websites–a move that can be crucial if you’re trying to allow people to pay for things through your app without using StoreKit and forking over iTunes’ 30 percent bounty.

The fact that this is Windows’ limiting factor is evident enough from who likes Windows Phones the best. Check out the comments you’ll find on stories like this : The people who are cheer on Windows Phone are often users with basic computing needs and no motivation to do complex work on their device.

I’m not a very heavy App [sic] user (I stick mostly to texting, surfing the web, and web apps if necessary) so I’m more focused on the hardware. My Lumia 920 is amazing for me. It’s really durable, I love the bright red color, and the screen is beautiful. The camera is nice too, but it’s only useful when I have to take a picture of text since I don’t take many pictures otherwise. I’ve had no issues since I switched, personally. That said, it makes me sad how little support WP8 gets.

Another misconception is that normal users are confused or preoccupied by the fact that files in the cloud end up stored redundantly. Sure, a lot of documents I save in Dropbox also get saved to iCloud when I edit them there–and on a desktop things didn’t use to work that way. But actually, this redundancy is more like a fringe benefit–more copies mean it’s easier to find things and harder to lose them–and the idea that something is stored remotely isn’t a hard concept. Plus, simply not losing things is a step up from the local storage paradigm. So why are users not more clearly enthusiastic about migrating all their stuff into the cloud?

The Web teaches us this way of thinking. But we don’t easily learn it. I think a lot about reasons why not. A major one, I’ve concluded, is that we bring millions of years of primate evolution to our experience of the Web. In the physical world that was our only home until a few decades ago, objects were singular and lived in only one place. They weren’t easy to replicate, and they couldn’t form clouds of linked replicas. In the virtual world this magic seems to happen naturally, the effects are surprising, and it’s going to take us a while to get used to them.

It’s intuitive that an app should retain content it edits, rather than storing it in some hierarchy. What’s confusing for users is that a single file today, when accessed on mobile and desktop devices, often needs to be modified by several different apps in the course of a workflow. This is a far cry from the desktop software paradigm, where file formats were more proprietary, and all the actions available on that file were right there in the program that created it. To be useful and user-friendly, an app really needs to focus as much on features as the way it interacts with other apps.


About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.