The rise of cloud computing technology in the desktop computer space--for both consumers and businesses--has been slow and gradual as users grow accustomed to saving and manipulating data stored in a nameless location by a faceless company. But on the mobile side of things, the transition from local computing and storage to cloud computing and storage is happening so quickly it's almost easy to miss.
And though the shift is technologically and strategically important, it is so pervasive and stretches across so many different applications, services and market segments that it's almost impossible to quantify and calculate. But the upshot is important for just about any player in the mobile space, from carriers to handset makers to software companies: Cell phones are mere windows into a vast, interconnected network than individual cogs working in conjunction with that network. Indeed, most analysts expect that much of what was once stored on phones--pictures, music and even names and phone numbers--will in the near future reside inside a giant data center (in the desert of Nevada, for example) and be accessed via a wireless data connection.
"Mobile cloud is much more of a quiet enabler," explained John du Pre Gauntt, founder of Media Dojo and author of the GigaOM Pro report "How Mobile Cloud Computing Will Change Tech."
The nitty gritties
Naturally, it's difficult to inject reality into grandiose visions of a cloud-based, always-connected future. Thus, examples are essential, and--as with much in wireless these days--they start with iPhone maker Apple.
A year after Apple unveiled in 2007 its first iPhone, the company launched MobileMe, a cloud-based synchronization service that allows users to access email and calendar information via just about any Apple product, from laptops to iPhones. More importantly, Apple's interest in cloud services appears set to grow: The company last year purchased streaming music provider Lala.com in a move many see as a precursor to a cloud-based, available-to-any-connected-device iTunes music service.
But Apple is by no means alone on the cloud, so to speak. This smattering of cloud illustrations stretches from operators to handset makers to application and service providers, and is intended to highlight just how pervasive the cloud really is:
- AT&T Mobility recently announced cloud enhancements to a handful of its feature phones, technologies that will allow users to back up their address books and more easily upload and manage their pictures via desktop computers.
- Palm's webOS platform (which is in the process of being acquired by Hewlett-Packard) launched on the premise that all user data would be backed up into the cloud. This scenario caused the company some headaches, though, when last year users had trouble accessing their cloud-stored information.
- Spare Backup recently expanded its cloud-backup service to BlackBerry devices, providing an automated backup solution for contacts, pictures, calendar entries, and documents stored on the gadgets.
- And perhaps the best and most thought-provoking example of a cloud-computing offering comes from Google. The service? Just about anything Google provides, either for phones or desktop computers. Google Web searching, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google News--all of these services are stored in Google's vast data centers and available via an Internet connection to users, both wired and wireless. Google's recent foray into the smartphone operating system game via Android provides the company a chance to more directly connect its users with their cloud-based data (and to make some money by throwing ads at them along the way).
"We believe the mobile space is where you need to be," argued Cery Perle, CEO of Spare Backup, in explaining the company's move 18 months ago from desktop to mobile.
(Of course, for those reliant on projections, there are some for the mobile cloud: ABI Research forecasts that the number of mobile cloud computing subscribers worldwide will grow from 42.8 million subscribers in 2008 to just over 998 million in 2014; and Juniper Research predicts the market for cloud-based mobile applications will grow to $9.5 billion in 2014.
The bigger picture
However, the ramifications of the marriage between cloud computing and mobile go far beyond simple revenue predictions. In the consumer market, wireless users may come to rely on cloud-based streaming music, photo sharing and other such services, but on the business side of things, cloud services could change the entire structure of the IT field--and workers' mobile interaction with this new structure brings the wireless industry directly into the center of the game.
"The power of this [cloud trend] really plays to the enterprise," said Mark Beccue, a senior analyst with research firm ABI.
Now, here's where things get a bit technical. ("Mobile cloud is not really a message for consumers," noted du Pre Gauntt.) In an enterprise cloud scenario, there are a variety of ways to slice the pie: Enterprises can rely on public clouds (available to everyone), private clouds (ones they purchase and own) or hybrid clouds (a mix of public and private, where enterprises would extend their data to a third party). Within this structure, according to du Pre Gauntt's mobile cloud report, enterprises can access a variety of service delivery models:
- Software as a Service: SaaS allows a customer to use an application, but the customer doesn't control the operating system, hardware or network infrastructure. Salesforce.com is an example of SaaS.
- Platform as a Service: PaaS lets the customer use a hosting environment for their applications. The platform is typically an application framework like Google's App Engine. The customer controls the app but doesn't control the OS, hardware or network infrastructure.
- Infrastructure as a Service: IaaS allows the customer to control the "fundamental computing resources" such as processing, storage, networking or middleware. The customer controls the OS, storage, deployed apps and even networking components like firewalls or load balancers, but not the cloud infrastructure below them. IaaS is the realm of a dedicated cloud provider like Amazon Web Services.
Interestingly, major telecom operators such as Verizon and AT&T are expanding heavily into cloud services for enterprises. The thinking is that businesses have to purchase their connections into the cloud from telecom companies, so why not purchase cloud services from them also? Further, telecom companies are used to dealing with massive amounts of data.
"Network is the foundation of all this stuff," said Yankee Group's Hochmuth. "If nothing else, the telecom players know how to run data centers."
Underscoring carriers' interest in cloud offerings was AT&T's announcement last month that it plans to spend fully $1 billion in efforts that largely revolve around cloud services. Branded as AT&T Synaptic, ("Helping information flow fast and flexibly--it's what synapses do in our brains, and it's the role of AT&T's Synaptic Services," the carrier explains) AT&T is offering cloud computing and cloud storage services mainly to business users.
(To be clear, the offerings come from AT&T's business group, not its wireless arm, though the two can work in conjunction.)
Chris Hill, vice president of mobility product management within the AT&T Business Solutions division, explained that the mobile portion of the carrier's cloud efforts will focus on machine-to-machine applications, unified communication services and mobile applications. For example, he said smart grid providers will need to warehouse and calculate all the meter readings they collect from Internet connected valves--a perfect application of mobile cloud computing technology.
"We see cloud computing as a natural solution across the board," Hill said.
Applications of the future
But cloud ambitions don't stop there. Some see a future where cloud computing can actually replace the app store hype of today's leading smartphone players.
As ABI's Beccue explains, today's smartphone apps that "live" on a given device can in the future live in the cloud and be accessed via an Internet browser. The result would be an industry flattened by the cloud, and applications could be built once and accessed through any device. Such a future would make obsolete the Android vs. iPhone vs. BlackBerry debates of today by making applications universally accessible.
Interestingly, Yankee Group's Hochmuth said progress on this front is already being made, albeit with small, tentative steps. Specifically, Hochmuth pointed to Citrix's XenApp offering, which allows enterprise IT managers to centrally manage a single instance of an application and deliver it to users working from anywhere--including smartphones.
While there's plenty of advancement on the cloud front, there are hints of rain in an otherwise silver lining. As Palm learned with its webOS backup struggles, there are drawbacks to a cloud future. The main problem?
"There's not a lot of 3G coverage in the Black Hills of South Dakota," noted ABI's Beccue, explaining that the cloud is only as powerful and pervasive as the network powering it.