About the Future of Mobile Phones

I’ve written a few articles on this topic, but a lot has changed in just the last month. Interestingly I met with an old colleague last week for a few biers and we were reminiscing about the years past. He recalled having a discussion about a novel concept at the run of the century with a major cell phone manufacturer. The idea centered on the notion that in the future smart phone competition would be based on availability of applications for the device and the dynamism of the application developer ecosystem. At the time the concept was a bit too novel for the audience.

I think we are already at the point where OSs have reached virtual parity for the market leaders (Apple, RIM, Microsoft, Google and Nokia). Also hardware has reached the point that all have HD cameras and touch screens with thin metallic form factors.  We are very much today at the point of the turn of the century discussion. So the question is if this is the ultimate end game?

I still think that the next phase in the smart phone battle is two fold. On one hand there is digital convergence and on the other there is cloud computing. Digital convergence is about OS families that span over multiple form factors with seamless integration. The slate will not replace the PC. Anssi Vanjoki today commented that the iPad is a poor PC. As my son would say: “Really?!” All form factors have their use on the scale of content creation to consumption. Digital convergence is a non-brainer for all above mentioned players except for RIM and Nokia. Nokia’s investments in to virtual worlds and social applications will not address this issue and they will not serve the purpose of the cloud. The cloud is about smart phones accessing smart applications in the cloud. It is about universal access to information from all form factors. It is about applications that provide rich mashups of data. I believe that Apple will join the cloud game. Google and Microsoft are already there, they just need to be all they can be. Again I ask what Nokia and RIM are planning in this arena.

When I assert these claims I am making projections 3-5 years a head. RIM is exceeding market expectations and Nokia is still the global mobile phone leaders. I believe that cloud based smart apps and new use cases deriving form digital convergence will set a new minimum baseline to meet and at that point having an iphone like user interface and 10,000 individual apps for a device will not be enough. Having the best email service of prosumers will not be enough, because a prosumer will want all the other value and the more powerful cloud based smart apps.

What are cloud based smart apps? How do they differ from other apps we use today? Think of the cloud as unlimited space and computing resources that are globally available with high uptime. Think of the cloud as the ultimate standardized platform. When 10,000 mobile applications become standardized and reside in the same virtual environment, the ability to share content between applications becomes easier and will give life to a new generation of rich applications and services. Application vendors will not only rely solely on their own content, but also subscribe to other app vendor’s data creating multilayer rich mashups. Imagine Microsoft Azure and their project code named Dallas… for smart phones! Don’t just think of demographic data sets superimposed on a map. Think beyond!

Speaking to ISVs I would claim that majority see the cloud as purely a way to reduce cost… the data center consolidation and the virtualization story. That may be in some cases, but we also need to look at the cloud as an enabler for a whole new generation of applications and services. New business and licensing models. Some application categories will become cloud based services for simple reasons, but in my personal opinion the most interesting use cases are where on premise and cloud are used in tandem to create something more where the sum equals more than the the two individually… like with smart phone apps, but not only.

There are two factors that command which applications make sense to be turned into cloud services. The main factor is network data speeds. This is why Google has the fiber for communities project. This can easily be illustrated in the battle between client based Microsoft Office and Google’s online productivity tools. With current network speeds it would not be feasible to provide the richness of features online that a client solution provides. ‘Google Office’ has nothing on Microsoft Office today. As speeds double, triple, quadruple, etc. more and more rich features become feasible online. Microsoft would argue today that they continue to invest billions into R&D and they will always stay a head of the curve, but I would venture that at some point Microsoft Office Online will be the predominant version of the application and still be miles a head of Google due to the integration with Exchange, SharePoint, Dynamics, etc. The other limiting factor is related to information security concerns. Microsoft’s Azure appliance addresses this concern. We will see micro clouds that enable proprietary data to remain onsite and still be able to securely access the macro cloud for all the benefits that the cloud offers.   

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