Well, Apple finally did the iPhone 5, and there are already sharp differences in how the launch is perceived in terms of the significance of the changes and what they say about Apple. I think some of these differences arise from perspective; some care only about Apple’s share price, some about its long-term future, and some are just Apple junkies who want to be cool. My interest is in the long-term systemic issues of the market, and there I fear Apple may be missing something critical.
Think for a moment about smartphones or even tablets; they are intelligent, network-connected devices. So are PCs and servers. The difference between the classes here is portability, which brings with it the ability to integrate these devices into a more general role in supporting one’s lifestyle or work. I can use smartphones for things I don’t use servers for because I can put a smartphone in my pocket.
What makes things complicated here is the cloud. I don’t need to put a server in my pocket in order to use it; I can use a thousand servers cooperatively from a simple device, providing that device can call on the resources of that server community and marshal them to my task. Because of this, it’s my view that the mobile devices are really GUI machines; what matters for them is the quality of the user interface because the user interface is the inescapable requirement for something that’s representing the user’s wish fulfillment—whether that fulfillment is accomplished locally on the device, by accessing simple web APIs, or by coordinating cloud activity.
LTE was the only thing that was significantly, functionally, new in the iPhone 5. Some, including Forbes magazine, have suggested that the LTE connection now available on the iPhone will make it better at supporting business functions, like analytics. Analytics on a smartphone? Come on! Anyway, the smart strategy for an analytics application directed at mobile workers would be to use the device as a simple GUI platform to invoke a cloud-resident analytics agent process. Otherwise you have to drag the data to the device (what Forbes apparently thinks LTE would be better for) and pay the data plan cost of that decision.
Mobile devices have two polar futures. We can assume that they will become powerful computing centers themselves, becoming capable of Forbes’ analytic tasks, or we can assume they become increasingly capable windows on a cloud world. I’d be astonished if anyone believes the former; whatever technology advances make smartphones as smart as PCs make PCs as smart as servers, and so forth. The future of all mobile devices is to fulfill simple needs and pass complicated ones, including all those that involve data analysis, to a cloud-resident agent process. I think Amazon sees that, and is driving Kindle Fire in that direction. I hoped to see a signal from Apple that they see it too, and no such signal was given yesterday.
If Apple is “under-clouding” their planning, there are continued indications that network equipment vendors may be “over-clouding”. Brocade’s analyst event is positioning the company’s new data center strategy, a strategy that like others seems based on the notion that fabrics and virtualization via SDN will be the driver of future revenue and profit growth. The problem is that network virtualization is so far convincingly valuable only to multi-tenant applications, meaning that it’s a cloud-provider-side technology. Let me get this straight; we’re moving IT to the cloud to take advantage of economy of scale there, but somehow we’re going to end up with zillions of cloud data centers, each with their virtualized fabric? Or will enterprises decide to build fabric-linked data centers to connect all those servers we’re proposing are being outsourced to the cloud and thus won’t be there to connect?
Fabric technology isn’t necessary to build cloud data centers. Fabric technology is necessary to build data centers that are highly integrated horizontally, meaning data centers that support componentized applications. That can happen in the cloud (and it will) and it can also happen in every data center a large-ish enterprise runs. Thus it’s not that fabrics aren’t valuable. The issue is that multi-tenancy isn’t valuable except to those who are hosting tenants, meaning providers. We should be looking at the broader issue of componentization of applications and how the cloud would impact that, and then looking at how data centers would evolve based on this componentization driver overall. Brocade, if they want to take a position in the cloud data center space, should have taken a deeper look at the issues and done something new and insightful, which is certainly possible at this point in the market.
The cloud is more than Apple’s current positioning suggests. As a driver of data center opportunity, by itself, it’s less than Brocade suggests. But what both companies COULD suggest is that the cloud is the description of a new, universal, virtual computer platform. Apps run on it—anywhere—by pushing their components to the places in that virtual platform where price/performance is optimal. Devices, from phones to servers, host a piece of the virtual platform and run some of those components. This is what the cloud becomes, if it’s ever anything beyond marketing hype. This is what Apple and Brocade and of course all their competitors have to prepare for, or they abandon a place and role in the framework of the future.