Yesterday, OFCOM revealed the results of the UK 4G auction. Putting the 2.3bn price tag and the impact on public borrowing aside, what does it mean for you and the way that you use your devices?
4G is driven by the need for speed. Upload and download speeds can potentially be ten times faster on 4G than they are on 3G. Of course, in reality, the speeds you receive may be lower than the 1Gbps that is nominally possible. Just as with high-speed broadband at home, the number of other users sharing the bandwidth available will impact the speeds you can achieve. However, as that’s the case with 3G too, you should expect to see some real benefits from an upgrade.
There’s still no unlimited data plan from EE in the UK but, with spectrum now in the hands of the other operators and services slated for launch before the summer, competition might lead to the introduction of uncapped plans. T-Mobile has recently launched an all-you-can-eat data plan in the USA to much fanfare and Three has a history of challenging the rest of the market with its unlimited plans – so we could be in store for uncapped data plans in the UK sooner rather than later.
But what does more data more quickly really mean for us folk? Is it all about video calls and online shopping?
Well, obviously, video calling would be a better experience on 4G than we have it today and retailers will be able to show you more of the products that you’re browsing. But the changes caused by 4G are much wider and it could have a more profound impact on the way we interact with our devices and what we expect from them.
What we expect from a device
Not so very long ago, devices were function-specific – and we had lots of them. Cameras were for taking pictures, phones were for making calls, MP3 players were for listening to music, games consoles were for playing games and so on. (Remember turning yourself into a pickpocket’s paradise when you went for a day out at the beach?) Fast forward to today, and our expectations are very different; we demand the ability to do all of those things on practically all of our devices.
Today, we split our devices by what could be loosely described as ‘use cases’. Our office laptops are for work so that’s where we write the majority of our emails and look at spreadsheets, our home desktop computers are for family use where we all store big files such as photos and projects. And our smartphones are for personal use.
Together, these behaviours cause two outcomes. Firstly, our devices require huge amounts of storage – a typical smartphone may have to carry not only three-dozen albums worth of pictures but an entire music collection, a week’s worth of emails, a library of books, films and games and all the software programmes required to use them. Secondly, it creates silos of information that you own but you can’t get to. For example, you have pictures on your phone, pictures on your laptop, pictures on a hard drive, pictures on an SD card – but they’re not the same pictures. And, just because you have a picture app on the device you’re using, it doesn’t mean that you can see the pictures of yours that you want to. Similarly, you have a device in your hand that could let you update the document that your boss wants urgently in the evening – but the document itself is only available on your computer in your office.
4G and the device
The speed and availability offered by 4G means that downloading or streaming information to your mobile device from your own ‘locker service’ on the internet nearly as quickly as you can get it from a drive on the device itself is one step closer to becoming a reality. And doing that at a reasonable cost to boot!
If that were the case, we’d see a fundamental shift in what we expect from our devices. Storing data on the device itself would become much less important. Who would need to spend £639 on a 128GB iPad when you could use a 16GB Apple tablet and simply download or stream the rest of your data to the device as and when you needed it?
We’d also see a decline in tying our devices to use cases. If you combine the lack of need for storage with the growing trend for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies in the work place, it becomes increasingly conceivable that, in the future, we have one smartphone-sized device used on the move that we can also dock at work to use as a computer or at home to use as a tablet. Wherever we were and whatever we were trying to do, we’d simply download or stream the appropriate files that we needed from the internet.
A single device is further off but, with 4G, we’d be a lot closer to a world where we have one laptop, one tablet and one smartphone that we use to connect wirelessly to different virtualised environments. The same device could let you log into a virtual work desktop during the day and a personal desktop in the evening.
Virtualised desktops are already making strides in office environments, thanks to technology from companies like VMware – and personal cloud services are making the concept of doing the same thing at home more of a reality.
Tomorrow’s technology today
It’s going to take time for the impact of 4G to be fully realised, so how can we see some of the benefits sooner?
To start with, let’s be pragmatic. When services launch later this year, they’re not going to be ubiquitous. Large parts of the UK don’t even get a decent mobile signal for voice calling so it would be crazy to expect to be able to download your files everywhere.
But we can start to think differently about what data we want to physically carry with us, and what we only need access to. Many services that are available today to help you share files between your devices are designed for a pre-4G world where data is copied to every device and stored many times over.
This incurs a substantial up-front cost. For example, if you’re buying into iCloud, there’s not only the cost of the service but all the additional storage you need on your devices to cope with everything being copied everywhere. A £240 saving from a low-storage iPad to a high-storage iPad buys a lot of mobile connectivity so that you can stream the data that you haven’t synced as and when you need it.
If you’re in the market for a new tablet or a new cloud service at the moment, a little thought now about what sort of service you want, combined with which devices could save you a great deal of money, both now and in the future.
A little bit of sync a little bit of access
Perhaps a better plan is to get a clearer understanding of what you know you want to use on your device and what you might want to use. Marking key folders, documents and playlists for syncronisation to all your devices – or dropping them into a ‘magic sync folder’ – will ensure that you always have the latest thing you’re working on or the songs you love wherever you are on whatever device, even if you haven’t got a single bar of signal.
Automatically copying the rest of your files to the cloud means that you can get at everything else if you find that you need it. This dual approach of having some data ‘on device’ and some data ‘on demand’ is a smart way of getting the best of both worlds – especially in the early days of 4G.
4G – The game changer
There’s still some skepticism about the impact of 4G. WAP was going to change the world, then 3G, now 4G… But it’s easy to forget just how far we’ve come from the days when the only thing you could do on your phone was play Snake. Mobile data and ADSL together have transformed where and how we work and had a major impact on how we shop, entertain ourselves, meet our spouses, choose where we live, and decide what to eat and what to wear. 4G is closest we’ve come to bringing the benefits of these two technologies together and we shouldn’t underestimate the potential of where that could take us.