The Year of the Mobile Edge

January 15th, 2020

Headshot for Sunay Tripathi

Sunay Tripathi

Chief Technology Officer & EVP of Engineering & Product

2020 begins the third year of MobiledgeX and my involvement, and a reasonable time to reflect a little. It’s been a learning experience starting with the fact that the Global Mobile industry evolves at a different cadence from the Internet and Cloud that I was used to. Although that has been frustrating at times, the causality makes a lot of sense.  First the mobile industry is huge — almost $2tn/year (the cloud is more like $100bn). If that weren’t enough, mobile infrastructure is a critical national asset. Something so large and global has to be comprehensively standardized and evolving such standards is complex and deliberate. Because the infrastructure is critical, the changes have to be designed with great care and then tested and validated and all that takes time as well.

It’s also taken a while to understand how to work with our parent — Deutsche Telekom, a $90bn telecom giant that less than 25 years ago was part of the German government and is still 30% government owned. Creating startups isn’t a natural motion for most big companies (and less for governments). But in the end, it’s unquestionably been worth the trouble, both because we built on a couple of years of analysis and planning that DT had already done, and because we assembled a highly accomplished team that brings the best expertise from the cloud world, with deep understanding of distributed systems and modern applications. 

In contrast to the seemingly daily news cycle of the Cloud, the cellular industry and a clear annual pulse marked with the occurrence of Mobile World Congress (which is not unlike a religious pilgrimage). In the cloud we have AWS re:Invent and Microsoft Build, but we haven’t really had an industry event like MWC for a long while, by and large perhaps because the cloud is much more fragmented and disjointed. Disjointed is perfect for broad, chaotic evolution, but not for everything. The cellular industry provides valuable, easy to use services that operate consistently on a global basis. It required trillions of dollars of capital investment to accomplish that. It would not have emerged from chaotic, disjointed progress (it was tried, and failed).

Asian cultures have a marked annual rhythm -- the Chinese name years after the 12 signs in their ancient Zodiac.  2020 is the Chinese year of the Rat (important to remember that the rat was seen as a sign of prosperity and abundance). MWC clearly divides mobile advances into yearly chunks. I think that 2020 is the year of the Mobile Edge. I’m sure that sounds expected and self serving coming from an edge company, but give me a minute and see if I can make the case.

Why Is 2020 the Year of the Mobile Edge? 

The mobile edge is the confluence of edge computing and the opening of the mobile infrastructure to developers and service providers. Both are a big deal and the kind of events that usually occur in any industry at most once per decade. History has shown that some of the biggest wins and market shifts begin with similar events -- the introduction of the modern smartphone and the rise of Apple, for example. 

One of the painful but necessary lessons you learn in startups is the importance of timing. A good idea that is too early or too late will suffer. In real estate it’s said that location is everything; you could say the same about timing in tech startups.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the mobile edge will spring into the world and transform everything during 2020, any more than the iPhone transformed Apple in 2007. Having been working intensely in the mobile edge for a couple of years, we think the visible inflection is in the 2022-23 timeframe, but we’re pretty sure that if you’re not in the game much earlier than that you won’t be a major player then. If the Mobile Edge is going to be significant then it’s going to be a pretty big business even if it’s a little piece of the huge mobile business.  Big businesses take time to develop and grow but you have to be in the game early on. I’m saying that if you want to be a big player in the mobile edge, 2020 is the time to act.

If the Mobile Edge is going to be significant then it’s going to be a pretty big business even if it’s a little piece of the huge mobile business. Big businesses take time to develop and grow but you have to be in the game early on. I’m saying that if you want to be a big player in the mobile edge, 2020 is the time to act.

We think we can sense the timing of the mobile edge from what we see in our business, the rate and ease of forming partnerships (critical to our federated business plan), the interest we see from developers, and their willingness to commit real resources to running on our platform, the interest we’ve found in building our second funding round. All that feels good and you’ll learn many of the supporting details at MWC and beyond. But if you’re reasonably skeptical and suspect that perhaps we’re just inhaling too much of our own marketing exhaust, I would point to AWS’ recent entry with Wavelength -- the ability to deploy and use AWS cloud infrastructure in a mobile operator’s network. AWS has done a remarkable job of building and growing a large business and in the past they have done that very pragmatically entering new segments with good timing. There are lots of issues in trying to use the public cloud within the mobile infrastructure -- you’ll learn more about them from us in the next quarters -- but we certainly respect AWS and would point to their actions as a validation of market timing.

And, to be clear, we don’t claim to understand exactly how this all turns out -- there is a lot of technology and business dynamic between now and then. So our advice (and our plan) is to make multiple bets, but to choose those bets carefully. By “bet” we mean some real, nascent business initiative that is possible to pilot and learn from today, a seed that might grow into a big tree.  This is exactly what we have been doing for over 12 months and are expanding and scaling in other regions with other operators, through our Early Access Program.

MobiledgeX Early-Access Program

Developers are invited to leverage world-class mobile networks to build, experiment, and test their applications on the edge!

Finally, we caution that the edge is pretty complicated. For example, we started a couple of years ago, as most do, thinking simply and focussing on latency, but now we see a more interesting problem which incorporates a broader set of issues -- location, provider business model, governmental and privacy regulations, and global operation, to name some. We think that there are multiple edges and the important question is which applications work best on which edge, and how that changes over time. You’ll find a lot more about these Four Edges on our website and in the Seamster initiative.  It also places different requirements on supporting technology and platforms. I will share more on this with our MobiledgeX Edge-Cloud R2.0 release later this month. 

Four Edges

Finally, we believe firmly that a rising tide floats all boats, so we’re sharing much of what we have learned and encouraging an industry discussion and dialog on the important problems and opportunities, something we call Seamster that you can learn more about at and after MWC.

Meet with the MobiledgeX team at Mobile World Congress 2020.
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