Digital assistants

A couple of weeks ago, CNNMoney, which rolls up business content for CNN, Fortune and Money (all three are Time Inc. properties), featured a post by Francesca Rubin, "The emerging market that could kill the iPhone".

These days, there may be no better linkbait than a headline that predicts the demise of the iPhone. Unfortunately, the headline reflected a story that obscured a real trend: a growing market for personal data control.

Rubin introduces the concept early on:

"Picture a cloud-based "hub" that's part virtual safe and part personal digital assistant. This hub allows users to manage their online lives and store all their digital stuff: financial information, medical records, movies, music, and so on. Clever software controls access, making sure appropriate elements of a user's online identity are available to the right, trusted Web sites."

A lot of good could come of this. Rather than manage competing interfaces for banking, investment and insurance services, a consumer could collect all of this information into a web-based portfolio.

Today, decisions about information-sharing require you to wade through and understand mind-numbingly long end-user license agreements (EULAs). This process could be improved by a service that had distilled all the agreements on behalf of their users.

This could become a fundamental change in control of personal information on the web. It's not the death of marketing; it's the start of target marketing that is informed by what the user knowingly decides to share.

Why should content producers care? As consumption of digital content grows, readers could store their content in cloud-based apps. With iTunes Match, Apple offers this now. So too does O'Reilly Media, which lets readers sync their purchases using DropBox.

On its own, cloud storage is not a big change. But these data-management services could then provide online retailers with targeted access to your digital content. Retailers could then make recommendations not on what you bought, but what you own.

These digital assistants would also make the data tradeoffs explicit, because they had taken the time to understand what happens to data that is shared across all of these marketing platforms.

The services that Rubin profiles are fundamentally in beta, and there is always some shakeout along the way. Their ultimate success, though, does not seem to threaten the viability of a smartphone.

Even now, much of the data I access using an iPhone is stored elsewhere. I have something like 350 GB of music available to me, and my iPhone can play any of those songs. The service is one I buy from Apple, and it requires that I use only a negligible amount of storage space on my phone.

What could change is marketers' access to personal information. The relationship would shift from push to pull, with the terms not buried on page 37 of the latest EULA.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.