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craig mathias

How smartphones-as-laptops could change network requirements

Jul 17, 20186 mins
Cellular NetworksHybrid CloudMobile

iot laptop mobile smartphone
Credit: Getty Images

Smartphones have become the primary Internet access vehicle for the majority of users across the globe thanks to a combination of favorable pricing for the devices and wireless service plans, Swiss-army-knife-style utility, and a continual increase in available applications.

Despite the small screen and keyboard, the mobile handset has become a laptop replacement option for many enterprise users. One reason is that the basic architecture of today’s smartphones mimics that of the laptop – processor, RAM, local storage, wireless network connections, operating system and the ability to run local apps.

Add GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, media player functionality, full-function web browsers, sophisticated still and video cameras, a high degree of software extensibility, and even the ability to function as a credit card, and the future of the handset seems assured.

The question for enterprise IT execs is whether to accept the trend toward bigger, faster, more powerful, more expensive mobile handsets stuffed with apps and data. Or are there are other approaches to dealing with handsets in an organizational context that focus on information, not handset hardware capabilities, and take advantage of cloud services and thin-client models?

More powerful smartphones may not be the answer

In line with the BYOD movement, many IT managers have accepted the smartphone as the replacement for the laptop for most end users. As a result, they have developed apps for the mobile handset and deployed a broad range of management and security software, just like with laptops.

Unfortunately, the costs associated with this model have in many cases been quite high. And the evolutionary path of handsets and the needs of organizational IT are often working at cross purposes.

Handset development is driven by the marketing of consumer electronics, which means shiny, sleek, cool, fast, new, frequently changed and updated, and more expensive.

From the IT perspective, it is fair to ask if any of these consumer-centric elements matter to the organization’s overall mission. The answer is no, as long as the requirements of security, acceptable us, and BYOD policies are met.

Consider the operational costs associated with BYOD provisioning, the costs of designing, building and maintaining apps in a world of multiple versions of multiple operating systems on many different devices, all with the goal of provisioning necessary IT services to mobile users.

Going forward, minimizing the cost of integrating BYOD handsets through the use of cloud-based services will become a driving force for IT organizations. Differences between handsets do not matter so much in a cloud-centric IT environment.

The core requirement for the use of handsets in an organization should revolve around the information they access, manage, and transform, not the consumer bells and whistles. With that in mind, there are three trends that merit the attention of organizational IT.

Smartphone as a ‘thin client’

No matter how powerful a given handset might become in terms of processing and storage, today’s online and collaborative model of information processing has effectively marked the end of offline processing.

With continuous connectivity a requirement, we can think of the handset as more of a personal or organizational communicator than as a laptop-class computer. We describe this as the return of the thin-client model, wherein an authorized device with access to the organizational network can direct any computing or communications activity via resources resident on the server side of the link.

Local processing and storage requirements on the device are minimized – and perhaps even eliminated altogether. While a purely thinner handset could also yield lower capital cost and longer battery life, we’re not expecting much compromise here, again with respect to consumer functionality, from personal apps to computationally demanding gaming.

Rethinking mobile management

Moving to a thin-client model enables a rethinking of Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM) and the associated costs and risks.

Mobile Device Management (MDM), apart from assuring compliance with basic settings, takes on a less critical role.

Mobile Application Management (MAM) can also become less important if organizational IT applications are web- and cloud-based.

Mobile Content Management (MCM), typically implemented via storage partitions managed and secured under the control of IT operations, is similarly minimized if sensitive data cannot be copied to a handset or other mobile device.

A new definition of ‘personal device’

Finally, it may be useful to have a discussion of just how personal a handset needs to be. Given that handsets can break, fail, and are sometimes lost or stolen, the ability to recover quickly is vital.

We may very well see future handsets based on a smart card that enables any compatible handset – or perhaps even another device like a tablet or even a laptop – to become a given user’s “personal” device on a moment’s notice. Of course, this rental usage model requires solid two-factor authentication.

All of this depends on applications, data, and user settings being backed-up in the cloud, which is increasingly popular regardless. And we might even extend this concept to virtualizing voice and messaging, the traditional services of the cellular carriers. Might wireless carriers simply become another ISP, decoupled entirely from user-visible services and even the handsets themselves?

We expect handsets to continue on the path of becoming faster, more powerful and more of a laptop replacement. Advances in communications technologies will necessitate the purchase of new devices, due to the new hardware required.  

But, as far as the organization is concerned, as cloud-access speeds improve, as they will with advances in Wi-Fi and 5G cellular, there will be a lessened requirement for ever-more processor power and storage in the mobile device itself.

The handset as we know it is here to stay in terms of form factor and basic electronics. The direction it will follow is dictated more by how we create, share, store and  manage information, the one element of the overall IT landscape that is clearly far more valuable than all the handsets already hard at work in organizations everywhere.

There’s still much work left in order to bring about the simple, precise, fluid, transparent and secure manipulation of the vast and ever-increasing universe of organizational information essential to enhancing end-user productivity – but that’s just a software problem.

(Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing.)

craig mathias

Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, enterprises, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-recognized industry and technology analyst, consultant, conference speaker, author, columnist, and blogger. He regularly writes for Network World,, and TechTarget. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and is a member of the Society of Sigma Xi and the IEEE.

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