Mobile cloud computing could blow the mobile apps game wide open - just don't mention the word "Sidekick"
In early November - less than 14 months after its commercial launch in July 2008 - the Apple App Store his its latest milestone at 100,000 apps and two billion downloads. IDC expects the latter number to top 3.5 billion by this February.
Which is, of course, why every mobile operating system has adopted the application storefront model, as have a growing number of device makers and even cellcos, all in the hopes of cashing in on the app-store hype and, more importantly, creating an apps ecosystem with a business model that consumers are finally in love with.
But the application storefront isn't the last word in mobile content hype. Indeed, there's another business model being championed as an alternative and possibly even a successor to the app storefront: mobile cloud computing.
The concept of mobile cloud computing (also called software as a service, or SaaS, in many circles, not always accurately) is fairly straightforward: instead of storing and running apps, content and data on your mobile device, you'll store and run them via the internet. In terms of the interface and customer experience, the user won't notice the difference. You'll still be able to check email, listen to music, play games and so on: but everything will be hosted on servers rather than the handset.
This isn't future tech - in fact, it's old news if you count old favorites like web mail and BlackBerry's email services, or newer Web 2.0-based services like hosted photos (Flickr, Photobucket), media streaming services (YouTube, Spotify), social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace) and navigation apps like Google Maps. But the rise of web-savvy handsets like the iPhone has made such services more accessible via mobile than ever.
Meanwhile, various players have been extending the concept more aggressively in the past year. New services like Apple's MobileMe, Microsoft's MyPhone and Google Sync aim to synchronize your Apple/Microsoft/Google info (whichever applies) between your mobile and the PC by hosting it where any of your web-enabled devices can access it online.
Even operators are starting to get into the mobile cloud game. Indeed, Vodafone dropped its Vodafone Live! Offering in favor of Vodafone 360, launched in September 2009, which lets customers sync contacts, emails, photos, conversations, music, and location-based services via mobile and PC.
Meanwhile, the "platform as a service (PaaS)" space - which allows customers to build and run their own apps on a cloud platform - is preparing to go mobile as well. Salesforce.com has already released a smartphone version of its Force.com PaaS offering, while Google's App Engine and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are expected to do the same in 2010.
All of which adds up to impressive numbers from ABI Research, which says the mobile cloud computing business will be a $20 billion business by 2014, with just shy of 1 billion subscribers (which will still only represent one fifth of the world's mobile subs by then).
In fact, says ABI senior analyst Mark Beccue, "By 2014, mobile cloud computing will become the leading mobile application development and deployment strategy, displacing today's native and downloadable mobile applications."
Before that can happen, however, mobile cloud computing still faces plenty of challenges - not the least of which can be summed up in one word: "Sidekick".