Mobile-Cloud Computing Is The Return Of Client-Server

Everything comes around. In the days before the Internet, we used to have something called client-server computing. Applications took advantage of the growing power of desktop computers to run many tasks locally, while tapping into powerful, newly-networked servers to handle more intense tasks and coordinate between all the desktop clients.

With the Internet, most of the computing tasks shifted over to the servers, and the only “client” we need now is a lightweight browser. This definition is fluid — modern browsers can handle many more tasks locally than before, but most of the heavy lifting still happens on the servers on the web.

But with mobile, we are seeing a return of the old client-server model. Except this time, we are calling it mobile-cloud computing. Peter Levine, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz who will be speaking at my next conference, DEMO Traction, April 22, 2015 in San Francisco (tickets), pointed this out to me on a recent call. I’d never thought of it that way before, but it’s obvious.

In mobile, apps rule. And apps take advantage of the growing computing power of our phones to offload as many tasks as possible to the device. This is because the bottleneck is often bandwidth. Apps need to be able to work in offline mode, and communicate with the cloud as efficiently as possible. All that communication drains the battery as well, another reason apps try to do as much as they can on the device.
Just think about your own desktop vs mobile computing habits. How much of your desktop time is spent in the browser? For me, it’s got to be 90%. Yes, there are plenty of desktop apps like Word, Excel, and Photoshop, but I barely use them anymore. On mobile, it’s the opposite. The browser is still important, but it is one of many apps. I use my mobile browser less than 50% of the time I am on my phone or iPad. (Based on my battery usage, it’s only 4%, but I open my browser inside other apps like Twitter all the time).

Mobile apps are just the return of client-server computing. (It never really went away. The desktop web was just more server than client, and now the pendulum is swinging back again with mobile). The servers in the cloud are still super-important, especially for coordinating and communicating between clients. Messaging apps are perhaps the most important type of apps, and they are useless without the network. But apps do as much work as they can on your phone before sending information to the cloud, or tapping into more powerful servers and databases which reside there.

Mobile and the cloud are two sides of the same coin, with mobile becoming the new end-points or “clients.” Think about the apps you use on your phone, whether they are games or taking photos. You can shoot a video and edit it on your phone without even being connected to the network. It’s only when you have to send the finished product that you need the cloud, and of course for sharing. But most of the computing power it took to make that video happened on your phone.

Maybe as mobile bandwidth improves, everything moves back into the cloud. But I doubt it. We like our apps, and how they tap into the computing power resident on our phones. They are here to stay. Welcome back, client-server