What to Expect in Cloud-Based Communications in 2020

John Donovan, AT&T's chief technology officer, is making what he calls "creepy" and "spooky" -- but ultimately good -- predictions for wireless computing and communications in the cloud in 2020.

BARCELONA -- John Donovan, AT&T's chief technology officer, is making what he calls "creepy" and "spooky" -- but ultimately useful -- predictions for wireless computing and communications in the cloud in 2020.

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In one broad scenario, Donovan said wireless users could store all kinds of data about their lives in the cloud and authorize various algorithms and computing systems to analyze it for later use to communicate and remind us of names, addresses, arcane facts and other important, and less important, tidbits.

That capability implies that personalized mobile phones and tablets that we carry around today won't be necessary, he said in an interview at Mobile World Congress.

In his outlook, someone could drive to dinner at a friend's house and use a wireless device, perhaps over a TV, to make a call or send a message by entering a password or fingerprint scan. The device would then find all of the caller's personal information in the cloud, including the phone number or e-mail address of whomever was being called. Even the names of the other person's children would be accessible, for example.

"Answers to everything will be at our fingertips, and [the information will be] more mobile and more ubiquitous," Donovan said.

A consequence of this repository of information in the cloud is that people will become independent of devices like smartphones and tablets, Donovan said. "Software will converge and devices will disintegrate and we'll have fewer devices that belong to us anymore," he said. "I don't see the need to carry mobile devices to visit you at your house, and I'll borrow one you have and authenticate myself on it."

AT&T is already experimenting with the cloud concept in its labs, he said. One experiment relies on information that carriers have known for years about calling and data usage patterns, including how a preponderance of people call home on Sunday nights.

That kind of patterns analysis will ultimately make communications and access to information more convenient, Donovan said. "If today I always answer calls from home at my work, then the phone will continue to ring there, but if I never answer your calls or e-mails, then I should never hear [or see] them," he said. "Time of day, day of week, location, business versus personal ... these things are not terribly complex [to analyze]."

AT&T's lab work has already used Donovan as a guinea pig. Engineers in recent weeks took all of Donovan's communications, including calls and e-mails, and uploaded logs from them, reading them not for words but for patterns. The lab analysis spit out a list of Donovan's top 30 best friends, ranked from 1 to 30. To his relief, "my wife was at the top," he said.

"They told me, 'Here's who we think your best friends are,'" by analyzing who got the longest calls, the most e-mails, the most texts, and even who got the longest texts from him, among other patterns.

The value of that kind of list is that it would help an automated system populate favorites, much the same way that Netflix suggests movies someone will like, Donovan said. In one example, Donovan said a TV today will turn on to the last channel watched, but it could be set up with a profile for every member of a family to turn on to the most-watched channel for each person.

"This is the difference between discovery and search, and [then] find," he said.

To expand on the concept, he said that with maps and location data, algorithms could compare the day of the week with a city found through location data to tell a caller or someone else who is authorized that you are likely to go on vacation or on a business trip.

The level of detail that's possible from the AT&T lab experiment seems so personal and invasive that Donovan admits it will be controversial at first to most people, even "creepy."

"The order of my 30 best friends that the list gave me was BETTER than the order I gave it," he said. "It was creepy."

He explained that when he analyzed the list, it made him realize that he should have been in touch more often with a good friend who is an amateur hockey coach. Since it had been too long since they were in touch, he took the prompting from the list as an opportunity to send the friend a trash-talk text about hockey.

"This kind of conceptual stuff is going to move from creepy to spooky to mainstream" in coming years, Donovan said.

He admitted there would probably be enormous pushback over personal privacy initially. Also, he said manufacturers such as Apple that are proud of the design of their smartphones and tablets would still want everyone to own a device instead of using someone else's device at a friend's house or at work or in the car.

"As I look at the horizon, this industry is just beginning to hit," he said. "It's not just mobile and cloud where things can be detached from devices, whether it's the TV or the laptop." What Donovan called "disintegration" of the user from the device will allow a "lot of flexibility," he said. "We'll see socially amazing things."

Donovan, who started his career as an electrical engineer, said his job of three years as CTO at AT&T has really been two jobs -- one of operating networks and the other of setting a vision for the future. Some of the ideas he mentioned in the interview will be described at an MWC session with other panelists on Wednesday entitled, Mobile Innovation: A Vision of 2020."

One analyst attending MWC, Kevin Burden of ABI Research, said Donovan's ideas are not that far-fetched, although he said personal information kept in the cloud will be controversial to most people.

On the one hand, Burden said mobile users have already reached the point where they expect the Internet to be available almost anywhere they travel. Donovan's ideas "aren't that big of a leap, but do we want that?" Burden asked.

He also said it makes sense to find ways for users not to have to carry all kinds of mobile devices with them. Consumers have moved beyond the point where the a mobile phone is a kind of fashion item or status symbol, so they might not mind using devices that they don't own personally.

However, Burden also said that the October 2009 loss of Sidekick personal data stored in cloud -based servers run by the Danger subsidiary of Microsoft should serve as a warning to all.

"A lot of people might not want that model," Burden said. "It's a very personal thing putting my information in the cloud. People could be at risk and not want it."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

Read more about mobile and wireless in Computerworld's Mobile and Wireless Topic Center.

This story, "What to Expect in Cloud-Based Communications in 2020" was originally published by Computerworld .

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