The term "cloud computing" is being bandied about a lot these days, mainly in the context of the "future of the web." But cloud computing's potential doesn't begin and end with the personal computer's transformation into a thin client - the mobile platform is going to be heavily impacted by this technology as well. At least that's the analysis being put forth by ABI Research. Their recent report, Mobile Cloud Computing, theorizes that the cloud will soon become a disruptive force in the mobile world, eventually becoming the dominant way in which mobile applications operate.

You may be wondering: what does the term "mobile cloud computing" really mean? Basically, it refers to an infrastructure where both the data storage and the data processing happen outside of the mobile device. Today, there are already some good examples of mobile cloud computing applications including mobile Gmail, Google Maps, and some navigation apps. However, the majority of applications today still do most of the data storage and processing on the mobile devices themselves and not in the cloud. In a few years, that could change.

Why Mobile Cloud Computing?

With a Western-centric view of the world, it can sometimes be hard to remember that not everyone owns a smartphone. There are still a large number of markets worldwide where the dominant phone is a feature phone. While it's true that smartphones will grow in percentage and feature phones will become more sophisticated in time, these lower-end phones are not going away anytime soon. And it's their very existence which will help drive the mobile cloud computing trend.

Not only is there a broader audience using feature phones in the world, there are also more web developers capable of building mobile web applications than there are developers for any other type of mobile device. Those factors, combined with the fact that feature phones themselves are becoming more capable with smarter built-in web browsers (and more alternative browsers available for download), will have an impact on mobile cloud computing's growth.

How Will Mobile Cloud Computing Become a Disruptive Force?

There are two primary reasons why ABI believes cloud computing will become a disruptive force in the mobile world. The first is simply the number of users the technology has the power to reach: far more than the number of smartphone users alone. The second reason has to do with how applications are distributed today. Currently, mobile applications are tied to a carrier. If you want an iPhone app, for example, you have to first have a relationship with the mobile operator who carries the iPhone. If you want a Blackberry app, the same rule applies. But with mobile clouding computing applications, as long as you have access to the web, you have access to the mobile application.

Moves by PaaS Players Could Change Everything

When you think of Plaform-as-a-Service (PaaS), one of the first companies that springs to mind is probably Salesforce. With their Force.com platform, business applications can be built and run "in the cloud." But Salesforce is not the only major PaaS player out there today - Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google's App Engine are also two platforms that could have a major impact on this trend.

Currently, AWS is used by over half a million developers and Google's App Engine hosts 45,000 applications. Now imagine if those two companies along with Force.com all of a sudden started aggressively marketing their mobile capabilities. Today, neither AWS nor Google offers this, and Salesforce's mobile offering is limited to smartphones (Windows Mobile, Blackberry, and iPhone). But if the companies decided to make building for the mobile web as easy as building for the web, you could have a mobile revolution on your hands.

But People Like Apps!

Saying that "mobile cloud computing" is the future doesn't mean phones will be filled with links to websites that work in any browser instead of special, downloadable applications, some of which you can even purchase. Instead, mobile applications will exist in both formats. As for the downloadable applications themselves, they will still appear to be your typical mobile app - end users won't even notice a difference. However, there will be a difference - it will just be on the back-end. Mobile applications will begin to store your data in the cloud as opposed to on the mobile device, and the applications will become more powerful as processing power is also offloaded to the cloud.

The first mobile apps powered by the cloud will likely be business-focused mobile productivity applications where collaboration, data sharing, multitasking, and scheduling are key factors. For consumers, though, navigation and mapping applications will be the most obvious examples of the trend. Plus, there are some specialty applications today which already function as mobile cloud apps - for example, Schlage offers a remote keyless entry system which lets you mobilely control your home from a distance. You can let someone into your house, manage your lights, your thermostat, your camera system, etc. There are also a few applications in the iPhone app store that let you remotely manage your PC and your DVR, too.

Potential Problems

Of course, there are some potential issues that could be barriers to this shift in mobile computing. The most notable problem is the lack of speedy mobile Internet access everywhere. Here in the US, for example, 3G coverage is spotty outside urban areas, leading to intermittent connection issues and slow speeds. Other markets may have it even worse.

However, new technologies like HTML5, which does local caching, could help mobile cloud apps get past those sorts of issues. And there's even a chance that the browser could one day be replaced - at least in some markets - with another technology altogether which provides a better way to access the mobile web. ABI Research mentions initiatives like OMA's Smartcard Web Server, essentially a souped-up SIM card that connects directly with the carrier to push applications to mobile phones. There's also TokTok, a technology that allows access to web services like Gmail and Google Calendar by voice. With voice-enabled search like this, mobile apps could talk directly to the service itself which sits on the edge of the network, as opposed to needing the user to launch a web browser and navigate through the mobile web.

When Will Mobile Cloud Computing Really Take Off?

According to ABI, this change is only a few years away. By 2010, we'll see one or all of the major PaaS players marketing their mobile capabilities, they say. But first, API standards from open-source mobile collaboration group BONDI will go into effect. Later, in 2011, we'll see more of HTML5, and the OneAPI standard will come into play. (OneAPI involves standardized apps for networks allowing developers to consistently access parts of network providers' capabilities, such as location services). All these factors combined will help drive the move to the cloud.

The changes will occur with differing speeds depending on the market. Markets with higher Internet participation will obviously lead the way, as will markets with higher subscriber penetration. That includes Western Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. Other markets will then follow. By 2014, mobile cloud computing will become the predominant application development strategy. By that time, our PCs will be more like thin client devices than they are today, and now it seems our phones will too.