I was typing an email on my iPad, and I got distracted. Some time later, I set the iPad down on my desk, and an icon on my Mac appeared. I clicked it, and in seconds the Mail app was running with that partially entered email in front of me. That's the Handoff feature in action, part of the iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite updates that will ship this fall. It's a sign of a change in computing that Google and Microsoft are also pursuing, not just Apple.
iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite are both in beta, so I can't really talk about the details of Handoff yet. But I can say it works just as Apple showed off at its recent WWDC conference's public keynote. Handoff is the first big step into a future where the notion of a device will go through a radical transformation.
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At first blush, what Apple is doing is blurring the lines between mobile and desktop devices. That's true, but it's only part of the actual transformation under way. There's no real name for this transformation yet, so I'm calling it liquid computing until someone else comes up with a better name.
In a nutshell, what Handoff -- and liquid computing in general -- portends is a world where both data and activities move around as needed. The device isn't the center of the universe, as it has been since the first computer.
Think back to the early PC era, when people first started getting PCs at home, not just at work. Remember the effort we all spent in making sure we copied our files to a disk for use at home? We had to bring our data with us or else use a network connection to a file share. That model has persisted to this day, which is why the biggest loss of corporate data remains the lost or stolen thumb drive or recordable CD.
But this mentality is now on its way out.
The journey to liquid computing
Several years ago, Google showed us a different way: the cloud as the new center. With Google Docs (now called Drive), you created your documents on its browser-accessible servers and worked on them there, usually through a browser but also via native apps on iOS and Android. You didn't have to sync your data, because it was accessible from pretty much any device. Unfortunately, Google's Web-based apps don't work that well versus what you can do on a smartphone, tablet, or PC native app, so most of us still start with the device and use the cloud as mostly a convenient file share.
Cloud storage services like Box and Dropbox reimagined that file share in a user-friendly way, with similar broad device support. Apple's iCloud Documents took the same idea but tied it to specific apps, moving us away from the notion of a common file pool to a common activity pool: text documents or spreadsheets or photos. Apple's initial iCloud Documents approach was too tied to its apps, though, so it hasn't really expanded beyond Apple's own applications. (Apple is moving to correct that mistake in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite.)