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Aggregation and disaggregation

Apr 01, 2019

The smartphone – one of the great inventions of all time

Smartphones are on everyone’s list of the greatest inventions of all time. In fact, one could even assert that mankind’s major innovations were: 1) fire, 2) spoken language, 3) the wheel, 4) agriculture, and 5) the smartphone. For those skeptics who ask why I omitted such notable breakthroughs as writing, electricity, radio waves, the Internet, computers, and GPS navigation, I have a simple rejoinder. Although all of these were considered major achievements in their times, they now can be seen to be merely precursors of capabilities inherent in every modern smartphone. In fact, they were steps in the right direction, and are now enabling mechanisms for the grand total, which is far greater than its parts.

Smartphones have become so versatile that nine times out of ten when you reach for your “phone” it is not to make a voice call. In fact, while the second generation only supported voice and SMS, the fourth generation no longer supports voice at all (except as packetized data). So why do most people panic if they misplace their phone?

Once upon a time one carried around coins or telephone tokens in case the need arose to use a pay phone. It wasn’t that long ago that people sat around a radio set or read newspapers to learn what was happening in the world. When running applications my phone is orders of magnitude faster than the giant mainframe computers I once programmed. All of us remember having to study a map before setting out for a drive, and constantly listened to traffic reports on the radio to avoid congested highways. The digital camera market, which killed the film camera market has in turn crashed. The digital calculator that erased all memory of the slide-rule has all but disappeared. Many people have stopped wearing wrist watches since their phone displays the time in a more readable fashion. All of us use our phones as flashlights now and then. I no longer carry a pedometer to count my steps, as a pedometer app is just as reliable. I even use my phone as a bubble level when hanging pictures or assembling shelves. And there are over two million apps available for download in each of the leading app stores.

The great aggregator

Each of the aforementioned applications – telephone, radio, computer, GPS navigation, digital camera calculator, wrist watch, flashlight, pedometer, bubble level – were once packaged separately, and entailed not just purchasing one and dragging it around all the time, but learning to use its human-to-machine interface. The secret behind the smartphone is that it has become the great equalizer. Everything is in the same device, and everything works the same way. Swipe here, pinch there, click; and you have zoomed in on a picture, or obtained a stock quote, or ordered a book, or found out how to get to your destination.

Take away any one of these applications, the smartphone remains just as smart; and someone will replace that application within a day. Take them all away and what’s left? The secret behind the smartphone is that it is an empty shell. The value is in the applications.

Perhaps the smartphone is not one of mankind’s great inventions at all. Perhaps it is not really even an invention or even a whole slew of inventions. Perhaps it is merely a platform, an empty stage with a floor, lighting, a curtain, and standardized interfaces to “enter stage left” and “exit stage right”. Perhaps all those breakthroughs I previously belittled are the real story, and the smartphone is just a convenient box to house them. Perhaps the smartphone is merely an aggregator.

The smartphone is not the first platform to aggregate multiple functionalities. In 1858 Hymen Lipman from Philadelphia received US patent 19,783 for the “combination of the lead and India rubber or other erasing substance in the holder of a drawing-pencil.” The integration of an eraser and a pencil was a natural idea, since erasing and writing are intimately connected. Another natural aggregation of functionalities is the combined copier-printer-scanner-fax-machine for small offices. The office needs all three, and putting them all into a single box saves desktop space. However, the combined machine also saves cost by identifying three atomic functionalities (called micro-services nowadays): a scanner, a printer, and a fax-modem. The combined machine then employs a copy app that uses the scanner and printer, a fax sending app that uses the scanner and fax-modem, a fax receiving app that uses the fax-modem and printer, etc.

However, the smartphone seems to be the first successful platform to aggregate so many disparate functionalities. The only thing in common between a phone, a radio, a camera, a flashlight, and a bubble level is that someone, somewhere, at some time, will need or want to use them.

Since both of the popular smartphone platforms are based on the UNIX operating system, one may be tempted to attribute their success to that platform. Yet other UNIX-based platforms, such as minicomputers, desktops, and laptops, never reached the level of popularity or the richness of applications of our swipeable companions. Evidently something else is going on here.

Not aggregation – disaggregation  

I think that while it is the aggregation of different functions that make the smartphone popular, it is their disaggregation that make the smartphone possible. By disaggregation I mean that the smartphone functionalities are independent of the details of the platform (e.g., an app may be able to run on different smartphones) and may even be replaced by alternative implementations without affecting other functionalities.

Not all of this replaceability is directly accessible to the end-user (I can’t change the camera CCD in my smartphone, although I can download new camera interface software) although a smartphone with modular hardware might make sense. Still, the smartphone can be considered to be a collection of functionalities – some hardware (the cellular modem, the camera, the compass, the MEMS accelerometer, the GPS receiver...) and some software (the dialer, the photo viewer, the email client, the clock, the audio recorder...). The implementations of both hardware and software functionalities are selected by end-users through their purchasing choices. Many of these implementations may be upgraded or replaced one at a time, while others involve replacing the entire hardware platform. Even in the latter case, the new smartphone retains its identity as my smartphone, since my accounts, my preferences, my data, my contacts, my photos, and my music, are all backed up in the cloud.

So, the real secret behind the smartphone is disaggregation. Providing a platform where various hardware and software functionalities can independently live and interact with each other through well-defined interfaces.

Disaggregation and innovation

If these functionalities are granular enough (once again, micro-services) then disaggregation enables re-use, and so leads to cost savings. Moreover, disaggregation encourages innovation. Consider the MEM accelerometer that was originally incorporated into the smartphone platform to enable rotating the screen. However, since this is a disaggregated platform, it has an accessible and well-defined interface. It is accessed by the pedometer app to count steps and by the bubble level (which exploits the constant gravitational force towards the center of the earth). Were it not for disaggregation, this access would not be possible, and the pedometer and bubble level would each require its own MEMS device, and perhaps its own microcontroller and screen. Not only would that have been more expensive, it would have discouraged anyone from thinking about incorporating a pedometer or bubble level into the smartphone in the first place.

So, the smartphone itself is not really one of greatest inventions of all times.

But maybe disaggregation is.


 

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