Limited 3G Bandwidth is Good for Mobile Apps

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It's been about four months since AT&T announced tiered pricing for iPhone and other smartphone users' 3G data service, ending the unlimited bandwidth option. The universe has not folded back onto itself, despite the hue and cry from application developers fearful that their apps -- mainly games and video players -- would lose customers after eating up the 200MB or 2GB they paid for each month.

That fear is a healthy one -- and all mobile app developers should have it.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Galen Gruman presents a plan for wireless Net neutrality that addresses the legitimate carrier issues but adheres to principles of fair, equal access. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

The dirty secret of computing since Windows removed the 640K memory limit on PCs is that most apps grew to waste an incredible amount of resources -- memory, disk space, and processing -- as the need to code and compile highly efficient programs went away. Install files can now be 1GB in size or more. Modern smartphones have processors and storage that rival that of PCs only a few years old, so they too can support wasteful apps.

But cellular bandwidth -- 3G spectrum, that is -- remains limited even as demand grows, and more efficient technologies such as the 4G LTE and WiMax offer just a few multiples more carrying capacity than today's technology, not the order-of-magnitude increases that have been routine in PCs and wired networks.

The concept that routinely streaming high-definition videos, for example, to iPhone and BlackBerry and Android users as they walked, took the train, or carpooled to work was an unrealistic vision. It's not just video, of course -- high-res 3D multiuser games, streaming music, live high-def weather maps, and videoconferencing are equally unrealistic about the limits of bandwidth. There's just not enough to go around if the application model for mobile becomes "everything is streamed to each device over the air."

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