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Rise of the cloudphone?

Rise of the cloudphone?
by Don Dingee on 03-24-2014 at 3:00 pm

We’re all quite twitterpated with the smartphone. Admittedly, it has taken much of the world by storm, and dominates EDA discussion because of the complex SoCs inside. Feature phones have repeatedly been declared dead, or at least disinteresting, but the numbers tell a different story.

While Europe and the US enjoy much higher rates, worldwide smartphone penetration is about 39% of mobile users in 2014, according to the latest numbers from eMarketer. In some markets across the globe, the choice right now is between no phone, an affordable feature phone, and an unaffordable smartphone – and those users are still opting for feature phones.

Sour grapes about the “junk business” aside, smartphone companies have noticed. Trying to deflect the lower cost wave, Apple is back with the less-than-successful iPhone 5c in an 8GB version just introduced in some European and Asian markets, and has also reintroduced the iPhone 4 in India. Only so many dollar bills can be wrapped around premium devices.

Others are having better success. Nokia Asha was designed from the ground-up to take on this challenge, with a top secret homegrown “1 GHz” SoC and a homegrown operating system. Regionally sourced Android devices are also winning, with lower cost processing cores and in many cases minus LTE support, Google Play, and other bells and whistles which cost manufacturers dearly.

 A breach like this, where the establishment struggles, draws new ideas. The allure of an “open” phone has drawn in four open operating systems: Firefox OS, Sailfish OS, Tizen, and Ubuntu. Each steps away from the world of retina displays and quad-core processors and app stores into a simpler environment, with HTML5 as the key technology. My pithy analogy:

Cloudphone is to smartphone as Chromebook is to Windows laptop.

Before diving into a religious argument about native apps being better than HTML5 apps fueled by Zuckerberg-enabled out-of-context bashing, consider how much SoC you can get for $3 to $5. That is pretty much all we have to work with in a $25 cloudphone, exactly what Mozilla and Spreadtrum are proposing (in spite of that headline, more on that shortly).

Details are sparse, but the Spreadtrum SC8621 is believed to be very similar to the SC8620 as shown. One ARM Cortex-A5 core. No GPU core, instead a DSP-laced multimedia accelerator presumably with CEVA technology inside. No LTE support, WCDMA and EDGE only. Firefox OS is also borrowing the zRAM memory compression idea to halve memory requirements.

Optimized HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript libraries leveraging a low power DSP core could compete in the lower end of mobile space, on inexpensive devices. Another consideration is in this “learn to code” age, there are going to be a lot more JavaScript coders than Java or Objective C coders. This point is not lost on IoT developers, either; a recent effort from Kinoma, a Marvell company, shows the thinking behind an inexpensive, easily programmed device with optimized libraries.

We’ve moved into new territory here – literally, opening the doors to billions of users who haven’t seen smartphones and can’t afford one, but who are craving mobile web access. Unless smartphone OEMs choose to become not-for-profit operations, HTML5 is the only choice where devices cost less.

If you place one of these Mozilla phones side by side with a feature phone and an Apple or Android or Nokia Asha phone, with the price tag prominently displayed, who wins when price is the only factor for a new mobile user? Touchscreens with browser access to cloud-based data and apps are an easy winner; make all the app ecosystem arguments you want, but the entry level user only needs about a dozen to become dangerous on mobile.

The cloudphone – yes, I’m proposing a new category, measuring these with smartphones just isn’t fair to either side and blurs numbers – can potentially wipe out the feature phone once and for all, and in some markets like Africa, China, India, and others could make a sizable dent in smartphone futures.

It’s not going to be easy for cloudphones in the face of branding pressure and competitive dynamics, and the fact they have to “make it up in volume” which has been tried many times. Mozilla has a head start and their own branding power here, but Samsung is not just playing with Tizen for the sheer thrills, and Ubuntu has realized they have no mass market without a device play. Jolla and Sailfish OS is a bit more difficult to explain, with the frustration of Nokia Plan B baked in to the strategy and a straddle to Android apps which requires some multicore processing horsepower offsetting the advantage of a DSP-centric approach.

If I were Tim Cook, I’d be very careful of using the term “junk” in reference to half of the potential market. That said, I don’t expect to see a sweeping Apple redesign moving down the price pyramid anytime soon. Will Mozilla’s attempt to change this game work, lowering the price point to $25 and opening a mobile front on the other half of the world?

lang: en_US

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