The trend of increased internal storage in smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices may be winding down as smart, inexpensive cloud solutions are popping up. Mobile broadband data plans, needed to move bits to the cloud, aren’t considered “cheap”, but a wireless pipe combined with web storage could still be less expensive than flash memory. And unlike physical memory which is created on a production line, connectivity and cloud storage options don’t face the same risks of component shortages or factory disruptions.
This isn’t the first time I’ve mused about storing more data off of a device and in the cloud, but a recent bit of news got me thinking about it again. Today, the folks at SugarSync added a new synchronization feature to the Android (s goog) version of their cloud storage app. Called AutoSync, the function automatically shoots camera images from an Android smartphone to a user’s computer. This happens in the background, with no interaction from the user and can be used to sync folders between a mobile device and computer as well. The SugarSync solution is just one of many to offer this “personal cloud” concept that I’ve been touting for more than two years now. Dropbox is another one of my personal favorites in this area.
So SugarSync, or a similar mobile client of your choice, represents the software portion of a cloud storage solution. But an auto-synchronization feature isn’t enough to diminish the amount of local storage mobile devices. Luckily, we’re seeing progress in that regard too. An early glimpse at HP’s (s hpq) TouchPad indicates a hybrid music store of sorts. Users will reportedly be able to either download and carry digital tunes or stream them, just like they can with Amazon’s (s amzn) recently launched Cloud Player.
One key difference is a “smart algorithm” for HP’s solution. The software can figure out which songs are most likely to be listened to and store those tracks locally. With such smarts, the software could reduce the amount of local storage needed. Those same smarts could find their way into wireless protocols. Last month we heard about HQME, a joint project between SanDisk (s sndk), Softbank, Sony (s sne) and Orange. The idea is that media would pre-load to a device over a Wi-Fi network based on which video a user would likely watch. Such a concept could be used on a broader scale with any type of data a user might want on their tablet or handset and eliminate the need to carry an entire video library around. Indeed, this is something my colleague Darrell wants to see arrive on the iPad: An elimination to the arbitrary flash storage limit.
Which is Cheaper: Physical or Virtual Storage?
Of course, a reduction in mobile device costs due to less flash memory isn’t a total win for consumers. While devices with less internal storage are cheaper, there’s still the costs of mobile broadband plans and and web storage that will offset any device price savings. But aside from Wi-Fi devices, most mobiles already make use of wireless broadband plans, so they’d be leveraging a function they already have. And less internal device storage could represent a disruptive opportunity for carriers: say, a specialized, low-cost data plan that’s specific for file transfers, for example.
Web storage is even cheaper than a data plan, by comparison. SugarSync offers 30 GB for $50 a year, while Amazon’s Cloud Storage provides 50 GB for the same price. And these are just two of many examples in the growing market for cloud storage. Don’t count out that “personal cloud” concept either. Adding your own storage to a PogoPlug at home or sharing local storage on a centralized personal computer can be even cheaper, while offering greater control over your data. Regardless of the approach, all of these options have the potential to replace some amount of local storage in a smartphone or tablet.
This idea is tangental to the common GigaOM theme that broadband is the processor, but it can be the storage too. These two related concepts became clear in Om’s interview earlier this month with Pradeep Sindhu, co-founder of Juniper Networks (s jnpr). When discussing the information everywhere idea brought about by mobility, Sindhu says, “You need an architecture where storage, especially long-term, persistent storage, needs to be absolutely centralized, logically centralized, in large-scale data centers.” Networks are the enabler here, and not just for processing, but for apps, storage and services.
We’re Not There Yet, But We’re Getting Closer
Will we always have need for local storage on devices? Absolutely, or at least until we’ve blanketed the planet in cellular, satellite and mesh networks, which won’t happen in my lifetime. And even then, we’ll want to carry some apps, media and other data with us all the time. But the bits and pieces that can help reduce the amount of local storage that are needed inside a mobile device are taking shape. Between faster mobile broadband networks with wider coverage areas and low-cost web storage systems tied together with smart synchronization software, a handset with 64 GB of internal storage just might become a technological unicorn. Cloud-based handsets with less flash memory are more likely to become common if these trends continue.