Cloudflare Internet Summit At the launch of the Mobile World Congress earlier this week, the mobile industry begrudgingly accepted that tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google were increasingly influencing its business.
At the same time, a new report from the mobile industry pointed – with a degree of desperate hope – toward virtual reality, smart cities and homes, fitness trackers and smartphones as the answer to the looming power of these few but powerful digital dictators.
The more applications, the more operating systems, the more uses that the mobile operators need to serve through their networks, the more say they will have over how things work. Not everything will be built around the iPhone.
At the Cloudflare Internet Summit on Thursday, a different path to freedom was discussed: building next-generation networks that tip the balance of power the other way.
Cole Crawford is CEO of Vapor IO – a platform for edge clouds that pushes cloud computing closer to devices themselves and allows for more autonomous data center ops – and Chaitali Sengupta is a consultant with Qualcomm Datacenter Technologies looking at the new opportunities that the latest technology offers.
Both of them are confident that new virtualization software and faster 5G networks – they will arrive en masse at the end of next year – will see a radical shift in how mobile networks actually work.
Instead of a centralized system where your mobile device is constantly talking to a far off (both physically and in network terms) system to get information, they expect to see a much more decentralized and virtualized system.
Need for speed
The base stations that you walk past and constantly switch between in the real world will become less dumb terminals and more their own servers, holding cached information and services. That means your mobile experience becomes much faster and more efficient.
It also means that mobile operators can maintain their competitive advantage in a market that the tech giants are starting to impinge on.
Crawford notes that Facebook has set up a network of its own base stations in India, using unlicensed spectrum to effectively bypass the traditional mobile networks altogether.
"We must not be out-innovated," he warns. And to that end, the mobile industry is working hard on coming to a consensus faster on new standards so they can be rolled out sooner and more effectively. Crawford cites claims from T‑Mobile last week that it will be able to roll out 5G networks in just six months, where its previous network upgrade took 24 months.
According to Crawford, that mobile connection – from your phone to the base station – is "just as real as glass in the ground," meaning that the mobile connection is as important as the physical telecommunication networks that connect up the world.
Of course, this comes from a man whose entire business is based on their edge connection, but nevertheless with the world increasingly accessing the internet and tying in their everyday lives to what they bring up on their phones, the importance of that connection is increasingly critical.
But even if mobile networks can continue to offer the best mobile-to-internet connection against competition from Facebook, Google and others, there is still the issue of operating systems.
With the effective death of Microsoft's phones, the whole mobile world is relying on Apple's iOS and Google's Android – and that gives those companies enormous leverage over what does and does not happen.
Crawford warns that iOS and Android are going to remain the standards "for a long time," but he also points to the extra speeds of 5G and the ability to shift intelligence to the edge as a possible harbinger of a wildly different future. In short, OSaaS – operating system as a service.
"We are entering a phase where you could stream an operating system to a phone over 5G," he noted. And that really could explode things. No longer would you have to rely on the operating system that comes with your over-priced iPhone and the walled garden that comes with it.
Instead, the next generation of mobile devices could simply stream their open-source operating system – and with a whole world of applications and services that don't require Apple or Google's official sign-off.
It's one view of a future world where those in Cupertino and Mountain View start to lose their growing stranglehold over everything to do with computing. Will it happen? We'll have to wait and see. ®