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Mobile Apps Drifting to the Cloud

Cloud computing is poised to radically change the way mobile apps are developed, accessed and used. And the cloud could save cell phones without operating systems from a premature death, according to an ABI Research study out today.

With the explosion of mobile apps in the past two years, developers as well as wireless carriers are eager to cash in on the trend, but most of today's applications need handsets with robust computing power, limiting their potential market.

However, a new architecture based on software running in the cloud will drastically change the way mobile applications are developed, according to a new study, "Mobile Cloud Computing," written by ABI Research Senior Analyst Mark Beccue.

He said this emerging trend could eclipse the current mobile application model by 2014, delivering revenue of nearly $20 billion annually by the end of that year.

Currently, mobile application developers face the challenge of how to address multiple mobile operating systems. Either they must write for just one OS, or create many versions of the same application. Adding to the task is the fact that most apps require significant processing power, data storage and memory in the handset.

By taking a Web development approach, Beccue said applications can run on servers instead of locally, so handset requirements can be greatly reduced and developers can create just one version of an application.

This trend is in its infancy, but ABI Research believes that eventually it will become the prevailing model for mobile applications," Beccue told InternetNews.com.

He said several factors come into play in regard to the issue. First, there is a vast amount of Web developers who would create mobile apps if it were easier to do. Second, wireless networks operators want to capitalize on consumer awareness of mobile apps, which is at an all-time high. And, finally, the advent of cloud computing along with two industry initiatives regarding standards are creating the optimal environment for a seismic shift in mobile app development.

"There's infinitely more Web developers than any other kind, but on the macro level, this talent isn't being tapped from a mobile perspective. Meanwhile, there's huge consumer demand for apps, and the carriers are saying, 'There's interest out there for them, but how do we push it down to everybody, the masses?' Smartphones dominate apps because they have the processing power, but feature phones don't, so that's a problem for everyone who doesn't have a smartphone," said Beccue.

That's where cloud computing comes in. "The best way to solve this is by looking at Web development. If a mobile phone has an Internet client that's thin enough, you can move all the processing and storage out to the cloud. The Internet basically solves the limitations you have from the form factor," said Beccue.

He goes on to say that there are two major initiatives sparking the trend. One is Bondi, which is backed by the Open Mobile Terminal Platform (OMTP) group, whose members include AT&T, T-Mobile and other wireless carriers.

The goal of Bondi 1.0, released last month, is to ensure that Web applications can access native functionality on mobile handsets consistently across platforms and with the appropriate security to protect the user from malware.

"Bondi is from the OMTP, and they're putting together standards that would come on the device, say for Java Script, so a developer can write to that standardized API and off we go. It's cool because it means Web developers get access to mobile specific stuff in an easy manner," said Beccue.

The second one is called OneAPI from the GSM Association, a global standards association network. "It's a network API, so it's a standardized API for things unique to mobile phones, things like location-based services, address book. The idea is if it's standardized and the carrier buys into this, the developer can write to this and all the carriers will support it. And there's revenue share for the developers, like ring-tones, the carrier bills it and gives money back to the developer.

Beccue said it will take some time before these initiatives take off, but he is optimistic that they will. "The feature phone would be saved because the cloud computing and these initiatives solve OS fragmentation, it smashes it. The Web can open mobile apps to the masses. Which then means, how do the OS players figure out a way to add value?"

Another factor entering the mix are so-called "over the top apps," meaning there is no immediate tie to the carrier, which are also called "platform-as-a-service."

"The over-the-top apps, or PAAS, is another big deal that will goose this trend. The three looming giants are Amazon AWS, Google's App engine and Force.com. The benefit to carriers is that they get more data traffic, even though there's no direct tie to the carrier," Beccue said. "This is cloud computing at its best, everything is hosted, the developers write on these platforms, which offer all the services, including mobile. If the developer community starts working avidly with these three groups and it's logical it will migrate to mobile, there'll be an even bigger push."

Still, Beccue said this new approach to mobile apps is not without challenges, chief among is intermittent network availability. A cloud-based application stops working if the connection is lost. However new programming languages such as HTML 5 will enable data caching on the handset, allowing work to continue until cellular signal is restored.

In the end, though, he thinks cloud computing will benefit the wireless sector, and especially consumers.

"Cloud computing will bring unprecedented sophistication to mobile applications," Beccue said. "To mention just a few examples, business users will benefit from collaboration and data sharing apps. Personal users will gain from remote access apps allowing them to monitor home security systems, PCs or DVRs, and from social networking mashups that let them share photos and video or incorporate their phone address books and calendars. Consumers just want the apps, they don't really care if it's Web based or not, and this will open up that access."