Lowenstein's View: Is Mobile Ready for the Cloud?

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Until recently, cloud computing has been thought of within the context of the evolution of the Web and PC. But it is going to be a pretty big deal in mobile. Question is, are we ready for it?

Several developments are going to drive the intersection of cloud and mobile over the next couple of years:

  • App fatigue. App stores have been a terrific on-ramp to mobile data. But the app framework is starting to become unmanageable -- from their sheer number to the requirements for storage, search, updating, and so on.
  • Multiple devices. It is becoming increasingly challenging to manage how apps and content are maintained, accessed and synchronized across the range of devices owned by the typical user or household: TVs, PCs, phones, Blu-ray players, tablets, gaming devices, etc.
  • Developer resources. The developer community is also challenged with developing and constantly updating for multiple OSs, and numerous flavors of phones and tablets. The Cloud should enable some consolidation of this workstream.
  • More transactions moving onto the Web. It started with e-mail and online banking. Now, nearly all mainstream consumer applications have a Web-based equivalent occupying the thrust of development efforts -- from Quicken (Mint) to Office (Live!, Google Docs).

Cloud will work its way even deeper into the consumer sphere this fall, as Apple (NAS: AAPL) launches iCloud. This is their essential admittance that the iTunes/local storage/sync model is outmoded in today's multiple device/content everywhere/web services world. As for Google, I've long believed Android market is a placeholder for their longer-term strategy of nearly all apps and content being Web-based. Android, meet Chrome.

These are the driving forces, and their implementation is occurring gradually. However, I don't think mobile is quite ready for cloud, and cloud is not quite ready for mobile.

Let's look at the mobile angle first. Cloud services require more of a continual connectivity model. This works fine when on the office or home broadband network. Heck, that browser stays open and connected all day. Even with thin apps or widgets and some local caching available through HTML5, cloud services are going to require a significantly different connectivity framework than we have been accustomed to in mobile: more continual and longer sessions, more streaming.

Wireless networks -- even 4G -- are not architected with near constant connectivity in mind. And even if mobile networks could handle it, current pricing plans and throttling policies show that the operators are not exactly courting a different usage paradigm.

Cloud services are also not architected to accommodate for the extreme variability of the mobile network experience. Think of the typical day of a mobile professional with a cellular-enabled laptop or Chromebook. He/She moves through myriad zones of connectivity, depending on context: from Wi-Fi to various shades of 2G, 3G, and perhaps 4G. And some of that time, no G at all. Is the user going to trust the Web for an increasing number of mission-critical services when there is such variability in mobile connectivity?

I'm not saying that we need ubiquitous 4G with unlimited pricing plans in order for cloud and mobile to properly intersect. I would, however, like to see progress in three broad areas:

1. Better Offline Management Tools
Google (NAS: GOOG) is the poster example here. They have a nearly complete professional productivity suite, essentially matching Microsoft Office. But most of the applications work sub-optimally, or not at all, when offline. Simply put, users need the ability to work on these applications while not connected. Research In Motion (NAS: RIMM) mastered this with their original PIM suite, optimizing for a narrowband world. Where the heck are they in this debate?

There should also be better tools to optimize what is delivered based on one's connectivity scenario. When on mobile, throughput, latency and prevailing pricing plan should all be considered. For more on this, please see my July column, Toward a Dynamic Connectivity Model.

2. Pricing Structure to Match Cloud
In addition to a more continual connectivity framework, cloud services are also based on the need to access content from multiple devices. Even today's 4G plans are not going to be sufficient for moderate to heavy cloud users. If we move to cloud services as fast as the proponents would like, Verizon and AT&T will be throttling a lot more than the top 5 percent of their customers.

Even more important is a pricing framework that allows data to be shared across multiple devices. Operators have all intimated they are heading in this direction. But 2012 is the year they need to get there. Rogers in Canada has implemented this quite nicely.  

3. Educate the Consumer
Enterprise IT gets the cloud. But consumers need to become a little more familiar with scenarios under which they are connected, particularly when widgets and thin clients try to smooth the experience between local and Web. But we do need to work with consumers so they can understand what they can do in different scenarios, what type of content (especially if it is media rich) they can access, how much heavy lifting will be required, and how their usage plan might be affected.

With some recognition of the uniqueness of mobile, and some investment by some of the key ecosystem players, there is potential for mobile to become a key component of the broad changes sweeping Web services.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wirelessmonthly newsletter, or follow him onTwitterat @marklowenstein.

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