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

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?
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

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.

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