Mobile mania has clearly had a powerful effect on society broadly and on the data center industry in particular. Because smaller tablet and smartphone devices lack the same processing and storage capabilities of larger machines like desktop and even notebook PCs, the cloud provides a necessary support infrastructure. Moreover, remote IT resources also deliver on-demand content like streaming music and video. But is the mobile revolution ongoing today, or are we just seeing the aftereffects?
The Revolution Is Over
Writing at ZDNet, Jason Hiner argues that the mobile revolution is continuing. “The only thing tech writers love more than naming a new product as the killer of another product is actually declaring the death of something. One of the latest targets has been mobile innovation itself,” he said—and quite rightly. The PC has been declared dead, even though it remains the workhorse of productivity with roughly 300 million units projected to ship in 2015, according to an IDC forecast. But even though no one thinks PCs today are revolutionary (although they were in the 1980s and perhaps even 1990s), these products continue to add incremental improvements in power consumption, processing capability, storage and memory capacity, and so on. Would anyone honestly dispute that PCs today are better than those of 5 or 10 years ago?
But those kinds of incremental improvements aren’t the stuff of a revolution. Hiner offers a list of features that smartphones and tablets increasingly provide, but the question isn’t whether these devices are improving—they clearly are. It’s whether they are improving at a rate that is both technically dramatic and appealing to the markets they serve.
For instance, Hiner cites today’s 4G networks that provide faster cellular connections (although they still lag Wi-Fi in both speed and cost efficiency), as well as 4K video capability in smartphones. And although LTE does indeed deliver more data faster, what is the fundamental value of wasting time watching video in high resolution versus ultra-high resolution that no longer makes any difference to the human eye? Likewise, shooting 4K video sounds great, except that smartphones still generally lack the physical optics to make for great recordings that are worthy of such high resolution—to say nothing about most of them lacking an operator with cinematic sense.
Other features like wireless charging, faster charging and better security are not revolutionary by any stretch. They simply ease (in some cases) tasks that support use of these devices, but few users will find that their experience is fundamentally improved because of these features. In the case of biometrics, on the other hand, the superficial benefits may lead to greater problems down the road, as misuse of biometric authentication can create intractable difficulties for both the user and the system at large.
Moreover, as I mentioned, a revolution is not just about the technical aspects of a device: it’s about marketability. A revolution in flying-car technology is of little interest if flying cars are still decades (or centuries) from your local dealer. In the case of mobile devices, the market is speaking about the ostensible revolution: worldwide tablet shipments in 2Q15 fell 7% according to IDC, which projects an 8% worldwide decline for all of 2015. Smartphones, although still a growing market, are clearly decelerating. IDC forecasts 2015 smartphone growth of 10.4% compared with 27.5% in 2014. Thus, regardless of what you label recent developments in mobile technology, the market seems rather unimpressed.
Hiner defended his assertions by saying, “If you don’t call this a revolution—even if it’s just the latest evolution of the revolution—then I’d like to call Doc Brown to send you back to 1990 so that you can play with a Windows 3.0 computer and see how much innovation you can wring out of that sucker.” But if one is allowed to choose any old time frame, it’s easy to lay claim to an ongoing revolution. Just because traveling from Maine to California in 1900 was a gargantuan task doesn’t mean cars remain in the throes of a technological revolution. Sure, they are still improving in various aspects, but they are far from revolutionary technologies, particularly if one considers only the past 20 or 30 years. Clearly, different technologies progress at different rates, depending in part on the development of other supporting technologies in that time frame.
Another indication that the mobile revolution (referring mainly to tablets and smartphones) has petered out is the move into wearables. The latest incarnation, the smartwatch, is a device that arguably constitutes a problem in search of a solution. The tiny screen and minimal input capabilities limit utility, and the need for many such devices to tether with a smartphone raises the question of just what exactly they do for a user. Google’s Glass project, which may be making a comeback, ran smack into social pressure, raising the question of whether mobile technology won’t suffer limitations because of culture. Although any or all of these devices may find buyers, they will likely only garner niche markets because they lack the convergence of benefits that tablets and smartphones offer most users.
Evolutionary, Not Insignificant
Regardless of whether mobile devices have passed from their revolutionary stage, some of their improvements still have an effect beyond just the user-facing features. For instance, increasing use of media streaming, combined with higher resolutions, means a growing need for infrastructure to process requests and transmit the data. The result in the case of the cloud is greater demand for data center resources. The only question is how long the expansion of capacity can continue at virtually no cost to consumers.
Mobile mania has brought computing power from our desks to our pockets and even our wrists (or right in front of our faces), but where else can it go? The revolution was in creating a computing platform that brought entertainment to consumers on the move; improvements to that platform are evolutionary if they only involve quality improvements or easing of peripheral tasks like charging.
For mobile devices to return to the status of revolutionary, they must implement some fundamentally new capability that goes beyond simple content consumption. For instance, a smartphone that doubles as a tricorder might well count as revolutionary. Or one that enables the user to beam from one location to another. Some of these possibilities may be sci-fi, but others may be in reach. Should they materialize (no pun intended), then mobile devices may once again be considered revolutionary. But the ability to download high-definition YouTube videos and to record the antics of friends in crystal-clear 4K (without any notion of the composition of a shot) not only fails to count as revolutionary, it suggests that innovation in this market is running on fumes.