It seems that after years of anticipation and false dawns, real mobile broadband is finally upon us. Wireless technology has evolved sufficiently that we can use suitably enhanced equipment with confidence that it will not only work but work fast. Some 3G networks admittedly feel like old school dial-up, but with HSPA-enabled networks we are definitely getting there.
4G is expected to signal another leap forward. Anyone who bets that the early performance will match the forecasts of the equipment manufacturers is demonstrating the primacy of hope over experience. Yet it's safe to assume that we will move forward significantly in terms of bandwidth and line speed.
That step change will be highly significant. It will allow us to use data on the move just as we would at home, whether as a truly mobile user (in a car or a train, say) or as a nomadic user (in a variety of fixed locations). 4G will be all about fast data access.
Still, if super-fast data access was all that 4G gave us, we wouldn't really be talking about it as a change in the rules of the game. Where 4G is likely to make the biggest difference is in interlocking with fixed data networks to provide us with ubiquitous broadband – fast data access from anywhere and everywhere.
Ubiquitous broadband means that I can be connected all the way from home to office, office to airport, airport to hotel, with no significant break in service or service quality. Ubiquity means that I will be able to access all my web-based resources from wherever I happen to be, and will rarely need to work on offline versions.
As a result, the server will become much more significant, and the client – the personal equipment that I use – less so. As my confidence grows that the web can be practically accessible from pretty much anywhere, my client devices will slim down, carrying decreasing amounts of data and eventually providing little more than access to the boundless resources of the web.
This is likely to have significant consequences for the PC hardware industry. As my client tends toward a size zero, it’s also likely to become increasingly cheap and disposable. I will increasingly treat my notebook, netbook or whatever I choose to use, as I would a radio, TV, DVD player or other pieces of consumer electronics – indeed the channels through which such devices are being sold and their price points are increasingly positioning them this way in the market.
I may see thin clients – screens with touch or keyboard access - becoming widely available in public and semi-public spaces and built into equipment such as TVs, dashboards, even (finally!) refrigerator doors. The need to “carry internet access” with me at all times will seem less important. Some high-end hotels are already offering guests netbooks for use during a stay – how long before widespread access from hotel, airport and business premises will eliminate the need to carry a business laptop altogether?
We are already seeing harbingers of this change in the form of netbooks, for which the public has shown a keen appetite through 2008 and 2009. Early versions focused on speed of access, ease of use and very little onboard storage, anticipating scenarios where it would be unnecessary to carry around large amounts of data. In practice, these devices were somewhat ahead of their time and quickly added more online storage to enable conventional use, but as an early indication of how personal computing is likely to evolve, they are persuasive.
Ubiquity brings new order
Needless to say, ubiquity will have significance not just for customers and device manufacturers, but for network operators and the providers of content, services and applications, too.
Ubiquitous broadband will have huge potential right across the websphere for both suppliers and users of internet-based services. Using the resources of the web for access to data storage and applications -- not just for backup -- is likely to become the norm. Infrastructure and software provided as a service (SaaS) and cloud computing -- using applications located on the web – will become seriously viable and increasingly trusted.
Who will be the key players in this new scenario? In terms of access, application providers may try to retain customer control by hosting their own products and maintaining a direct link to the customer. But in the longer term, carriers will exploit their ability to build and locate data farms efficiently and to manage the traffic that such services will generate.
So better, surely, for all but the biggest and most secure of application providers, to lease space and access from the carrier than to invest in the virtual real estate and communications.
The carrier network is looking like a strong candidate to become the data center for consumers and for enterprises, storing a substantial amount of data and an increasing number of consumer and business-productivity applications, opening a vital new source of revenue for carriers and allowing them to exploit their huge ongoing investment in network resources.
This is likely to require some change to the carrier business model but not one which is unachievable – and the potential reward for creating such an environment could be huge.
Robert Machin is principal analyst at Comptel Corp.