The mobile communications industry is likely be the chief beneficiary of cloud technology
By JESSICA TWENTYMANInformation is being democratized like never before thanks to cloud computing, and the advantages for businesses and consumers alike of accessing it through their phones are seemingly endless.
Today's smartphone users can perform a bewildering array of tasks using applications downloaded to their handset from an online store. Whether they want to manage their personal finances, count calories or view details of houses for sale in their local area, "there's an app for that," to borrow from Apple Inc.'s iPhone marketing slogan. Once installed, these so-called "native" applications are able to take advantage of the powerful processors and abundant memory contained in devices such as the iPhone, Blackberry or handset running Google Inc.'s Android operating system.
But these downloadable, native applications may soon face stiff competition from a daunting new class of rival—applications residing in the mobile cloud. Instead of purchasing individual applications and downloading them to their phones, users will have the option to access applications via their handset's Web browser, from a cloud-based location, where the data involved is processed and stored on a system hosted by a third-party provider.
There are several reasons why they might wish to do so. For a start, smartphones are notoriously hungry for battery power and native applications sap their energies quickly. Cloud-based mobile applications, by contrast, are not limited to the battery life offered by the handheld device, or its storage capacity or processing abilities. Instead, they have all the power of a server-based computing infrastructure behind them.
That means that not only do they use fewer handset resources, but they can also perform a wider range of richer functions. As a result, predicts Mark Beccue, an analyst with IT market-research company ABI Research, "cloud computing will bring unprecedented sophistication to mobile applications."
But more importantly still, mobile applications in the cloud can be accessed not just by the latest smartphones, but by any phone capable of running a Web browser. This will allow owners of lower-cost phones to tap into the same applications that, right now, are confined to more advanced handsets.
These are early days for mobile cloud applications, although a few are already well known. Google's Gmail and Google Voice for iPhone, for example, can both be launched via iPhone home-screen shortcuts and appear to behave like a native application. The difference is that all the processing power is going on at the back end, on Google's own systems.
But many industry watchers are predicting that the number of mobile-phone users accessing applications via the cloud is set to grow exponentially. Mr. Beccue, for example, predicts that their ranks will swell from some 42.8 million subscribers in 2008 (or approximately 1.1% of all mobile subscribers) to almost 1 billion in 2014 (or almost 19%).
In the process, he says, these kinds of applications will surpass their downloadable, native equivalents in popularity (see chart). "By 2014, mobile cloud computing will become the leading mobile application development and deployment strategy, displacing today's native and downloadable mobile applications," he says.
This could be great news for application developers who, today, are forced to write a different version of an application for every mobile phone platform on which they want it to run, says Chris Hazelton, an analyst with 451 Group, an IT market research company. "Over the next 12 months, we'll start to see companies building applications for mobile workers on cloud-based platforms that are capable of delivering those apps to any device," he predicts.
It's better news still for mobile- phone users, who will be able to use any device they choose to access the same functions and data, says Evan Kaplan, chief executive of enterprise mobility specialist iPass Inc. That's important, he says, because today's users carry a number of different devices, including laptops, smartphones, and increasingly, tablet computers such as the Apple iPad.
In 2010, Mr. Kaplan's company surveyed 1,200 mobile workers across Europe, the U.S. and Asia-Pacific, and found that 97% carried two mobile devices and 50% carried three devices when they were travelling on business. In many cases, that is because each device represents their only access point to a particular application. When they can start to access a mobile application that resides in a central location in the cloud by their choice of device, he says, everything changes.
"It's not the device that matters, it's the person using it: One person, with one account, on many devices," he says. "No matter what people have in their briefcase, pocket or purse, they want to be treated as one person, and this is where we see the real impact of cloud computing—platform independence."
Mobile cloud is good news, too, for companies that want to equip employees in the field with access to the applications they need to do their jobs. Corporate IT teams won't need to develop, host or manage these systems, or the server computers that run them. Instead, they will be able to rent them on a scalable, pay-per-use basis from third-party providers.
"For chief investment officers, that means buying into a pre-existing service that can be up and running very quickly, rather than going to all the effort involved in provisioning the systems and software they need to service mobile workers," says Rupert Chapman, a cloud specialist at management consulting firm PA Consulting.
Plus, mobile workers will be able to use the devices they personally prefer to work with—a trend often referred to as the "consumerization" of corporate IT—with no risk to corporate data if that device is lost or stolen, because it is held and controlled centrally, says Rikke Helms, managing director of EMEA at mobile applications vendor Antenna Software Inc. "When a corporate user upgrades to a new handset, they will simply log into those services from their new device in order to resume activities," she explains.
It's an interesting proposition for Peter Ransom, chief investment officer at development charity Oxfam. Many of the organization's staff work in locations in Africa and Asia where conditions are harsh, mature computing infrastructures often nonexistent, but mobile coverage is, in relative terms, good.
"So we're looking to see what more we could potentially do with mobile phones for accessing applications relating to health care, disaster relief logistics and so on," he says. "Today, the usability of even simpler applications on a mobile device is pretty limited, and network coverage is still a challenge, so substantial investment would be needed, but we're keeping a watching brief on mobile cloud."
Much needs to happen, however, before the mobile cloud can reach its true potential. Mobile network operators are already scrambling to accommodate burgeoning volumes of data traffic alongside traditional voice and text communications.
Considerable investment will be needed, says Alex Rigaldo, head of cloud services at Orange Business Services. "Data has already had a massive impact on our network—volumes more than doubled between 2008 and 2009," he says. Mr. Rigaldo estimates that there are around 400 million smartphones in use in the world today, and that these are already using more capacity than the 6 billion standard mobile phones already in use.
That shift in traffic types is already being reflected in changes to data tariffs among operators. At the same time, many are positioning themselves as mobile cloud providers to their enterprise customers, offering to host and manage mobile cloud applications on their behalf.
"If you want a provider that really understands the importance of data availability and data security for mobile workers, then your mobile network provider is the best place to start," says Mr. Rigaldo.
Regardless of who hosts mobile applications, however, the pressure from users—both consumers and mobile employees—is seemingly relentless. With mobile phones set to overtake PCs as the most common Web access device world-wide by 2013, according to analysts at IT research firm Gartner Inc., the world of mobile cloud applications looks ready to explode.
Ms. Twentyman is a writer based in London. She can be reached at email@example.com.