Death of a smartphone: 4G could spell the end of the mobile as we know it

Death of a smartphone: 4G could spell the end of the mobile as we know it

Summary: Faster mobile networks - 4G and even 5G - unlock the prospect of shifting the OS off the handset and turning it into a thin client. Could they pave the way for the end of mobile hardware as we know it?

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There's been a lot of talk about 4G and the coming of 5G, and what these networks will let us do in streaming HD video on the go, downloading apps, and so on.

But there are far more inventive uses of super-fast connectivity that could see the way we use phones, or even phones themselves, transformed.

Nokia Lumia 920
Could faster networking and the cloud put paid to smartphones as we know them today? Image: Ben Woods

Imagine a world where, from the minute you switch on your phone, it's constantly connected to a network delivering 50-100Mbps minimum downstream. Yes, data transfers are faster; more than that though, there's the means for a whole shift in the market waiting to happen, if vendors want it.

What if this ultra-fast networking did away with mobile hardware as we know it? What if, every time you switched on your phone, it downloaded the OS image instantly from the cloud, effectively turning your handset into a thin client?

What if, every time you switched on your phone, it downloaded the OS image instantly from the cloud, effectively turning your handset into a thin client?

From a security and updates perspective, moving to a wholly cloud-hosted model would make things a whole lot simpler, cheaper and more straightforward to manage. For you, it would mean that you would never lose your phone again — even when you lose your phone.

In fact, imagine never thinking of a handset as 'your' phone again at all. In the world of the cloud, all thin-client mobiles could be created equal. Forgot or lost your phone? No problem, just pick up any other handset lying around, and you can have it all there again in a second.

Go one step further, and you wouldn't need a handset at all. Any internet-connected screen would do — PC, smart TV, whatever — and you'd have all of your content, all of your apps, all of your contacts: your phone.

Not only would it mitigate almost all the problems associated with losing your phone, it could also drive down the price of handsets by allowing manufacturers to cut back on the hardware, but still deliver the same services and features.

Let's backpedal a little. You could take one of two approaches on the thin-client front: all server-side processing and very low hardware requirements; or a slightly less 'thin' approach, which downloads the OS at boot but allows for more offline caching. The second is the more achievable of the two with how networking stands right now, but the first isn't necessarily implausible in the far future.

True, the second scenario does negate some of the benefits associated with being able to cut back on hardware requirements and therefore the up-front cost of the devices. Even so, it still provides the inherent security and management benefits for both user and manufacturer.

Services as a selling point

If you think about it, the most notable point of differentiation for phones — and therefore mobile manufacturers — is the services on the handsets. For example, Nokia uses the same mobile OS (Windows Phone) on its Lumia 920 as HTC does on its Windows Phone X, but using the Lumia is a different experience to using the HTC handset, due to the mapping and music services that each has.

If services prevail, then that could drive a move toward 'thin' phones, especially if hardware features become even further homogenised

This use of services as a selling point for phones, rather than the hardware or OS, could turn out to be a mobile industry trend. If services prevail, then that could drive a move toward 'thin' phones, especially if hardware features become even further homogenised.

Take this trend to the next step, which would be the arrival of thin mobile clients. It's easy to see how manufacturers could continue to build out their businesses, and developers could continue to make apps that make the most of backend or on-device computing power.

Obviously there are drawbacks to thin clients: for one, the 4G or 5G connectivity needs to be extremely reliable. If you're using a cloud-based ultra-thin client, then an outage would turn the handset into a paperweight, as nothing would work at all.

If you're using a less stripped-back 'download on boot' phone, you'd be less hampered by networking outages, as it would have offline caching capability. Even so, making calls or checking messages would quickly become a pain if outages were a frequent occurrence.

The key drawback from a manufacturer's point of view is the loss of a compelling reason to push customers to upgrade their handsets. But if more revenue can be generated from services, this becomes less of an issue; and with wearable tech just around the corner, we're already moving toward a future without phones anyway.

For the customer, the downside could be the loss of cachet from owning a highly sought-after device. But there's nothing to stop, say, Apple from designing an ultra-sleek 'thin' phone either.

While this is all possible, I don't see any of it happening soon. Mobile manufacturers are unlikely to move quickly to thin clients, and I suspect Apple won't want to let users boot up an Android OS on an iPhone.

What is likely, though, is a shift to more stress on services and an end to today's hit-and-miss approach to software updates that will appeal to vendors and buyers alike.

Topics: Cloud, 4G, Emerging Tech, Mobility, Networking, Smartphones, Virtualization

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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30 comments
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  • Unless you can guarantee at least 99.999% uptime

    keeping in mind that people move with these things, including going into buildings and tunnels and such, I can't see this working well even with caching. The whole point of the thin client is to make the server the heavy duty processor, disconnect from that and you have an underpowered processor trying to do heavy lifting. That just won't work.

    The way to fix that is to give the phone a better processor, but then what's the point of using a thin client in the first place?
    Michael Kelly
  • Better options...

    As the other poster mentioned, do you want a brick in your hands if Cellular is down ? Also, you just put more data onto the pipe (and made AT&T and Verizon happy that they could charge you more money). Please don't give them any more reason to charge us too much money. What needs to happen is that they base OS and core apps need to be standardized, made more modular, etc... so that handset manufacturers can get the updates out faster (and when only a module needs to be updated, instead of the whole phone OS). On top of that, if we can get standardized mobile development platforms, then applications can evolve more quickly, but stay on the mobile device where it can often be used without the need for connectivity OR with reduced data requirements.
    jkohut
  • No. Never happen because data costs are too expensive.

    Always connected phone will eat a good percentage of very expensive, very limited monthly data allowances. At just a handful of GB per month, carriers will be billing a ton for data overages and people will resist using services that consume bandwidth.
    alsw
    • +1 alsw

      I had the same thought as ALSW. You'd have to convince cellular carriers to give out data buckets that account for downloading OS images every reboot...keep in mind that many of the Android ROMs I download for my Galaxy S3 are north of 700MBytes - reboot 3 times in a month and you're already over your data limit.

      Then there's the general trust issues with trusting all of that data to whoever owns the server....

      Joey
      voyager529
      • Is Download of OS necessary every time thin client is turned on?

        I have Chrome Book, and absolutely love it. I boots up in less than 8 seconds, each time I turn it on. I do not have to worry about updating the software, virus, or updating the OS itself. If the smart phone has similar features, is the OS download necessary every time it is switched on? Can they make smart phones like chrome book?
        Vyas Rao
    • Good for carriers, bad for everyone else

      I can just see it now: engineers at Motorola, HTC, Samsung, etc. addressing their senior management:

      "We have designed a new mobile paradigm that completely eliminates the need for customers to buy our highest priced. highest margin device and in turn we can crank out a billion phones at next to no profit whatsoever. Since there will be no reason for customers to choose our phones over another, we could save on...uh....advertising expense? This new plan will allow us to resize our giant company into a small one. And aren't the politicians always saying how "small business is great for our country?" The shareholders should love us!"

      Meanwhile, rather than sucking the $500 cost of a shiny new phone every 2 years, consumers get shafted with 5 fold increase in data usage costs, rendering it the equivalent of upgrading every 6 months (Apple customers, of course, will notice no change since they already are used to this upgrade cycle).
      jvitous
  • That would awesome if it can work

    Look, the best thing about Chrome - the closest thing to a thin client in popular use today - is that your machine is synced and needs virtually no maintenance. In the household I now have 3 phones, an Android tab, a Win 8 convertible, a laptop and two desktop computers. It's becoming a headache to keep them all updated and synced and with the right apps. It's getting to the point where I'm an IT manager and need some kind of machine management software.

    I for one am hoping that Android and Chrome converge and turn into some kind of cloud synced machine managing OS. Windows 8 is gaining some rudiments of a machine syncing function. I don't think they will be thin clients exactly - you still need local independent processing power if only because 4G is freaking godawful expensive. And processors and RAM etc are just getting smaller cheaper and better all the time so there's little economic sense for thin clients.
    ArtInvent
  • Elephant in the Room

    Biggest problem is the cost of access and downloads. In AUS we get ripped off for data allowances so don't expect me to vote for a thin client phone until Telstra et al get into the real world with pricing.
    KRP1950
  • Dream on !

    Have you seen 4G data prices ?
    Alan Smithie
    • Unlimited 4G data on Virgin Mobile for $35 a month

      Virgin runs on Sprints network, not exactly expensive...
      GoPower
      • family of 4 -> 4 x 35 x 12 months = 1680

        who cannot afford such high prices:
        - retired people
        - unemployed
        - families
        - people who want to better use their money for mortgages or holidays as an example
        - etc

        I pay £20 a month and when I change my phone - please google we want that nexus 4 - I want to go to a cheaper pay as go contract to save another £50 to £100 a year. I prefer to give the money to my children than the telcos!
        Drakkhen
  • some people might find this attractive

    and I wouldn't be surprised if we see such a thing come to be in the next few years. but I don't see it as being much more than a niche product. for many reasons, the majority of people will want things running 100% on hardware for a good number of years to come.
    theoilman
    • What are you talking about?

      The vast majority of smart phone computing is done on the back end in some data center. The apps are mainly little clients. And I guess you've not heard about all of the cloud computing? People are renting server time, and or are paying someone else to run their apps in a data center.
      GoPower
  • Kind of goes back to what Sun said 15+ years ago

    The network is the computer, and what they really meant is you don't need fat clients at the end of each network connection.
    GoPower
  • Bad imagination

    "Imagine a world where, from the minute you switch on your phone, it's constantly connected to a network delivering 50-100Mbps minimum downstream. "

    You mean other than on my WiFi network ;)?

    "What if, every time you switched on your phone, it downloaded the OS image instantly from the cloud, effectively turning your handset into a thin client?"

    It would be a horrific, horrible experience. There would be a significant delay while the OS was downloading, and if you weren't in range of a tower you would own a brick.

    That's a really bad thing.

    The way OSes work right now is a great experience, why change it into something worse?

    "From a security and updates perspective, moving to a wholly cloud-hosted model would make things a whole lot simpler, cheaper and more straightforward to manage. "

    Which explains the ever-increasing threat of cloud services being taken down and getting hacked by the likes of Anonymous.

    Actually, no, it isn't. It's a single point of failure. Instead of a few people losing acces, everybody does.

    Hackers have proven to be more effective than ever against cloud networks.

    "For you, it would mean that you would never lose your phone again — even when you lose your phone."

    You mean like it is right now? Modern OSes can certainly handle online profiles. When I get a new phone, I just log in and I have access to my stuff again.

    "Obviously there are drawbacks to thin clients"

    But you're willing to ignore them for the sake of pushing your agenda. Not to mention that "non-thin" clients are perfectly capable of having the same benefits of thin clients, along with added benefits impossible with thin clients, namely offline access and increased responsiveness (as they don't have to wait for a network in order to do everything).

    "and with wearable tech just around the corner, we're already moving toward a future without phones anyway."

    Uh, no. Wearable tech is cool and all, but a device you can hold is still a good idea.

    Did you even read the article you linked to? It's about fancy clothing with lights and stuff in it, not about clothing with computers in it.

    Somehow I don't think boxers shorts made purely of circuit boards is gonna replace my phone, lol. Or even my existing boxer shorts, that looks absurdly uncomfortable.

    I vote you didn't even look at the link you posted - it's about geeky fashion, not about replacing phones . . .

    "and an end to today's hit-and-miss approach to software updates "

    It's already ended. What's "hit-and-miss" about it?
    CobraA1
  • In a word, "NO"

    People were ranting about the same idea for PC's years back, that never happened. Neither will this. I live in the countryside, reception is patchy often, operators only invest heavily in built up areas. I would not want my physical location to dictate if I can use my phone for other purposes.
    Dave Derrick
  • Dream comes true!!!!

    Even till now 4G is not much popular and 5G is coming.if it will then life will be much faster then recent.it will be a great milestone in mobile field.let's see what happens !!!!!!


    Mobile Phones
    johnbiber
  • In the Future...

    Awesome, I will park up my Sinclair C5 and get Metal Micky to order me up a thin client handset via the my new in-car phone.

    No wait reception is crap here and Micky doesn't really work, perhaps I will use my hoover to cut my hair with my new handy trim your own hair attachment instead...

    Note to Ben:

    The BBC canceled Tomorrows World in 2003. Following a run of 38 years, the public realised that most of the inventions didn't get sold and if did, rarely "changed our lives" as claimed. Kate Humble went on to film wildlife and producers swapped to formats that showcased ready for market technology, like the Gadget Show.

    Why? You might ask. Well mainly because crystal ball gazing is dangerous!

    Raymond Baxter should be remembered by all for his coverage of the microchip, but we actually all remember him for his coverage of the fold up suitcase car...Sat there with his knees round his ears LOL

    And so it will now be with you!

    Ben Woods, that guy who predicted we would all have thin client phones when 4G gets cheaper.

    Look it isn't all that bad. At least you aren't sat in a suitcase car on Youtube.
    John Laity
    • Lets be honest

      Tomorrows world was format that allowed the common person an insight into new technology. Sure many never made it to mass production, but the general ideas were there. The rise of the internet and easy access to information is what killed Tomorrow's World.

      What we have now with the gadget show etc is nothing more than advertising, at best one step up from those nasty teleshopping channels.
      Pastabake
  • Pointless

    Article: Stuff could happen - it won't - the end

    why bother?
    daveg4