The Tablet, the Cloud, the Future: Hand in Hand?

Consumerism is raising its head again in networking, and yet at the same time we’re seeing some new initiatives aimed at businesses.  The temptation here is to say that these seeming contradictions are unified by the search for profit, but there may also be some technical factors that are either driving changes or perhaps being driven by them.

The rise of Android in phones is a good example of consumerism.  Yes, iPhones are way cooler than standard devices (even though Android’s “Jelly Bean” release is said to be a considerable improvement) but they’re also way more expensive.  In a mass market, the guy who does best with the masses wins.  Samsung is riding Android smartphones to victory regardless of patent issues, and that demonstrates that Apple is vulnerable in a market it created.

In tablets,  Apple seems to be widening its share, and you have to wonder what the difference is.  I think one difference is that Android is so fragmented.  Not only are there a bunch of different tablets from different vendors with different features, there’s also the problem of different Androids.  Tablets run everything from version 2 to version 4 these days, and many vendors have said that they will not be advancing their older models (even a year old) onward to new versions as they come along.  That makes life harder for developers and it also discourages users who feel they may be stranded.

Tablets are in the long run more important than smartphones, though.  A tablet is a real information appliance, and that makes it a threat to a lot of different business models.  The business implications are clear, for example; workers can be given something portable and thus take work with them, as long as they have a connection.  Which is where tablets get really interesting; most of them don’t have 3G/4G connectivity, they rely on WiFi.  Tablets are the biggest driver of change in metro networking.

Standard wireless treats the Internet as a nuisance traffic source; we hear all the time about “Internet offload”, a strategy to get free traffic off premium paths.  With tablets, it’s the Internet/OTT stuff that’s valuable, and of course WiFi is a non-premium path almost by definition.  It’s also more affiliated with wireline (a hub off a local broadband connection) than with wireless (towers and RANs).  So as tablets get more popular, they tend to push “mobile” investment more to wireline, and they create issues like mobility or at least portability in wireline services.

I think that tablet consumerism is ultimately going to homogenize metro infrastructure, gradually pulling all of the wireless/wireline differences into virtual networks on common technology, at least where ownership issues allow.  Tablets will also redefine business mobility, with a focus on roaming intra-facility or within company properties where most mobile workers really roam.  Eventually, tablet consumerism will redefine cloud.

Apple’s challenge is to hold the lead here.  With Jelly Bean, Android may have reached a level of stability and ease of use where it could challenge Apple.  If Google can somehow make all their Android-vendor clocks chime at once with upgrades, they could hope to develop a real tablet counter to the iPad.  Right now, Apple by controlling tablets can control a lot of the evolution of user experiences and even network infrastructure.  Google takes over if they can make Android for tablets what it already is for phones.

The cloud dimension is the one I think is most important.  Tablets, as devices with richer interfaces, are capable of supporting richer services.  It makes no sense to host these services on the device, particularly if the services require a lot of information digestion to arrive at a simple answer.  Apple with Siri and Google with Knowledge Gate are taking steps to separate searches from questions in handling, and I think the latter are going to the cloud.  Thus, the cloud becomes both a requirement for success and a defense against competitors.  Apple is still lagging in its cloud conception, and also in its deployment of cloud assets.  Google could win here, and that could both magnify any tablet drive Google undertakes and shift the focus from devices (where Apple is a clear winner) to cloud, where Google is the master.

Tablets, in short, are really important, and so we need to watch the trends there carefully.

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