5 Apr 2015

Routers Should Support Apps

Many devices nowadays have apps: not just PCs, phones and tablets, but also cameras, TVs and set-top boxes like Roku.

Routers can also benefit from having apps. If you’re thinking, “I already have apps on my phone and laptop. Why do I need them on my router?”, the answer is to do things that are best done by a device that sits on your desk or cabinet.

To begin with, routers should be able to receive Google Cast and AirPlay streams from phones, tablets or PCs, like a Chromecast. In other words, if you’re playing video or audio on your phone, you should be able to redirect it to speakers or a TV connected to your router.

You should also be able to use your router with a remote control (in addition to an app on your phone). In this mode, it works like a Roku or an Apple TV. Imagine watching Netflix using your remote, like a traditional TV. 

One can also have more powerful apps than the typical Youtube / Vimeo / Netflix type frontends to web sites. Apps on media players can become like TV channels. Imagine a sports app that let you watch a match from different camera angles or replay in slow motion. Or a news app that lets you pose a question to a public figure being interviewed. Or a weather app that shows you the weather on your TV (like a TV channel) but for your city, detected via geolocation (like an app). 

You should also be able to do voice searches by speaking to it, as with Amazon Echo.

As routers become more powerful, they should not become any harder to use. Apps are a natural solution to this problem, as a way to divide up functionality into discrete manageable chunks, rather than having a single monolithic OS [1].

Routers can also help offload things from laptops. Imagine a BitTorrent app that downloads a TV series over however many hours or days it takes, and then makes it available via Wifi.

Or a backup app that backs up a few tens of GB of data to Google Drive or OneDrive, from an attached hard disc or a laptop, and not have the backup stop when the laptop goes to sleep or runs out of power [2]. One can imagine a whole word of apps that make sense for routers.

A router can provide a Bluetooth connection to devices like Android Wear, which don’t have WiFi and need Bluetooth to connect to the Internet [3]. This is going to be more important with the Internet of Things, when you have many low-powered devices that speak Bluetooth and not Wifi.

Finally, routers can also work as desktop PCs, given that they have much of what you need for a PC: Internet connectivity, both wired and wireless, plenty of CPU power (my router has a gigahertz CPU), multiple USB drives, support for external discs, a file server, a print server and so on. Just add Bluetooth and HDMI or DisplayPort and it becomes a PC. Not the world’s most powerful PC (you wouldn’t use it for 4K video editing), but one that comes for free with your router. To work as a PC, the router needs a platform for apps. Or it can work as a Chromebox. The latter solves the chicken-and-egg problem of getting a critical mass of apps for a new platform.

Routers can do to desktops what smartphones have done to standalone cameras. Standalone cameras still exist, but most of the photos taken nowadays are taken on smartphones. Similarly, desktop PCs will always exist, but if routers acting as low-end desktops can do the job of a PC for the majority of users, that’s a big step forward.

Routers can be much more than devices that are set up once and then ignored, lying in a corner. They can replace set-up boxes or sticks like the Roku, Apple TV or Chromecast. They can replace Chromeboxes and desktop PCs. And they can offload things that happen today on a laptop.

Routers are an unexplored world of possibilities. How long till someone starts exploring them?

[1] Apps on a router will be more powerful than mobile apps, because they don’t need to worry about draining the battery, or about incurring expensive cellular data usage. In some ways, they will be even more powerful than apps on a laptop, like OS X apps, because OS X apps need to worry about draining the battery, while router apps won’t have that constraint. The only constraint will be running within the limited CPU and memory in a router (limited by PC standards). But a sensible OS can throttle abusive or demanding apps from slowing down others or the router as a whole.

[2] Offloading a large upload from a laptop will require plenty of internal storage on the router.

[3] Android Wear can only pair with one device and use that device’s Bluetooth connection, but there’s no reason that limitation can’t be eliminated.

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