Could 5G give us a truly cloud-based smartphone?

By Harry Menear
As 5G lowers network latency and increases throughput, it could mean a radical reimagining of what constitutes a smartphone...

Cloud and edge-based computing could radically transform the contents of our smartphones over the next few years, particularly as the faster speeds and lower latencies provided by 5G networks become increasingly ubiquitous.

In a recent article published in the Manila Standard, Qin Fei, Head of Vivo’s Communication Research Institute hypothesised that the advent of 5G could have a transformative effect on the nature of the modern smartphone. 

“Could the future be as simple as a single sheet of glass, which is how artists and science fiction envision the future smartphone?” he asks, adding that the logical next step is a handset that serves as a “pure display device with all processing and intelligence in the cloud.” 

It’s certainly an intriguing thought. There’s already a recognisable push across the application space for using low-latency connections to host apps in a public cloud and stream them to devices in “real time”. 

Mobile cloud computing

Using a smartphone as the access point for mobile application cloud is an idea swiftly gaining traction. IBM is a big proponent of the technology, noting that cloud-based apps deployed to mobile devices grant the user increased speed and flexibility, as well as better development tools. 

Daniel Yellin, IBM’s vice president of Mobile Platform Development, notes that “The rapid elasticity of cloud-based services complements the portability and convenience of mobile devices — a combination that ensures an engaging user experience and drives increased customer loyalty.” 

Probably the best example of how heavyweight IT loads can be run on mobile devices via the cloud is cloud gaming. The technology has been a steadily-expanding bubble over the past few years, with Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and most recently Facebook all throwing a diverse array of hats into the ring. The idea is that powerful computers run demanding games remotely, and stream them to a smartphone with such low latency that twitch-based games, where reaction times are paramount, can still be played effectively. 

However, 5G infrastructure isn’t quite ready to deliver the kinds of cloud gaming experiences that can compete with local platforms, yet. 

Sri Iyer, CEO and founder of Game Bench, wrote recently that, “To meet the demands of enthusiasts, the input latency needs to be less than 133-milliseconds, quickening to less than 83-milliseconds for ultra-gamers, yet the best we can currently serve up is 170 to 180 milliseconds, which only caters to basic performance.” 

He does also note, however, that mid-band 5G could be the answer, and that “we’re not too far away from an exhilarating future where 5G means high-end games can be played convincingly and seamlessly on mobile devices.” 

The natural leap here is to ask, if powerful business and entertainment applications can be run remotely using low-latency 5G and powerful cloud-based computing, why not use the technology to run an entire phone? 

The cloud-first smartphone

There is a precedent for the idea of a cloud-based smartphone. All the way back in 2013, two ex-Google employees, Tom Moss and Mike Chan, founded Nextbit. The startup launched its debut smartphone, the Nextbit Robin, on Kickstarter all the way back in 2015, with a vision to deliver “seamless cloud-first computing across multiple devices.” 

The Robin came equipped with a mere 32GB of local storage, and used AI-based behavioural analysis to offload underused applications and data - from video and pictures to whole apps - into an unlimited cloud storage space. The idea was to create a phone with unlimited storage, outsourced in a way that optimised performance and reduced the demands placed on the device’s internal hardware. 

The approach is similar to Google’s own Chromebooks, which derive a large portion of their functionality by hosting applications in Google’s own cloud and online, as a way of reducing the need for large amounts of RAM and better chipsets. Similarities were also drawn between Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud storage, but the Nextbit team promised that they were delivering even more seamless 

The project raised over $1mn on Kickstarter and, like most Google spin off projects ahead of their time, hasn’t made much of a splash since. 

However similar the Nextbit Robin’s outsourced cloud storage ended up being to the cloud storage solutions available on most phones today, it’s the background nature of this technology that points towards the kind of cloud-native architecture that could be possible with the growth of 5G. 

Going Virtual

Rumours have surfaced this past month from Baidu, the Chinese technology giant, might be one of the first companies to come close to the vision of a cloud-based smartphone. The company released its new Cloud Phone earlier this year, a device which uses ARM servers and cloud computing to run Android OS apps on its cloud. 

Reportedly, “Users can remotely control Cloud Phone in real time to achieve cloud running of Android App. In other words, Baidu Cloud Phone allows the user's mobile phone or other terminal devices to "add" another set of Android programs that run on the cloud and synchronise the "picture" to the phone in real time.”

While it’s still a bolt on application for an existing device, the path definitely exists towards a device that is built from the ground up to be the display-only portal for the virtually-unlimited power of cloud-based apps, computing and operating systems. 

If cloud servers can host high performance computing loads, why not a smartphone chip? If iCloud and Google Drive can remotely host unlimited amounts of data and media, why not all the information contained within a phone? If cloud gaming can deliver ultra low-latency, high performance graphics to a smartphone, why not deliver an operating system in real time to what is essentially a slab of smart glass with a camera? 

In his recent article, Fei also notes that “5G will prompt the next major rethink in the evolution of smart devices. We don’t know yet the exact form factor of smartphones in the next 5-10 years, but we can already see how their core elements will evolve.” 

With the power of the cloud and ubiquitous 5G connectivity, the coming decade could see our devices truly step beyond the limitations of physical hardware. 


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