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VMware set to virtualise mobile phones

Run multiple mobile OS and download more apps on your virtualised smartphone

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Virtualisation is on its way to mobile phones, according to company executives.

Just as it does on PCs and servers, virtualisation on phones allows different software to run in isolated environments, bolstering both security and user choice, the executives said during a panel discussion at the Mobilize conference in San Francisco on Thursday. One handset could run applications on different mobile operating systems, according to Srinivas Krishnamurti, senior director for mobile solutions at VMware.

"Each icon could be, underneath the covers, running in a virtual machine or completely different operating system," Krishnamurti said. "From a consumer standpoint you don't really care, you just want to get the app and run it."

This capability could be a boon to enterprise employees, many of whom carry two devices today, Krishnamurti said. With virtualisation on the application processor of a smartphone, they might be able to run business applications and store business data on the iPhone or Android handset they bring from home, he said. VMware is already talking with CIOs about making this possible, he said.

But Krishnamurti cautioned that mobile virtualisation, though promising, isn't ready for the kind of explosion of popularity that began a few years ago for VMware's PC and server technology.

"Our belief is that on mobile phones, we haven't quite found that kind of a compelling use case with a clear [return on investment]," Krishnamurti said. The mobile world is different from data centers and PCs because users can't simply choose to install bare-metal hypervisors on their phones. Rather, the handset makers and carriers have to sign on to the concept, Krishnamurti said.

"It takes a while for all these people in the ecosystem to get the hang of it, figure out how they're going to make money, before it actually takes off," he said. Open Kernel Labs President and CEO Steve Subar, who sat next to Krishnamurti, said virtualisation is already widely used in mobile.

OK Labs has been working on mobile virtualisation since its founding in 2006, but the field has evolved, Subar said. It began with virtualising the mobile phone baseband processor, which handles communication, and in the past two years has evolved to being used in application processors. The company's virtualisation technology has been used in a string of Qualcomm platforms, including the Snapdragon chipset used in the HTC EVO 4G and other devices, he said.

One thing that virtualisation has done is to lower the cost of cell phones by allowing manufacturers to incorporate more types of software without building in specific hardware to run it, according to Subar. This phenomenon is opening the door to a new generation of "mass-market smartphones" that have browsing, social networking and gaming capabilities but cost less than full smartphones, he said.

Subar said virtualisation cut the parts cost of the Motorola Evoke, an early virtualised phone introduced about two years ago, by US$46. That translated into a $200 lower consumer price, he said. These types of phones have a big role to play in the prepaid cellular market, where consumers pay the full price of the handset, Subar said.

OK Labs plans to introduce later this month a platform called SecureIT Mobile, which uses virtualisation to isolate selected calls, text messages and applications on a handset. The company released a white paper about SecureIT on Thursday and is talking to handset makers about integrating the software into future phones. SecureIT is intended to give new security capabilities to organizations with critical information, especially government bodies and public safety agencies, on a relatively inexpensive off-the-shelf device, said OK Labs President and CEO Steve Subar, who also spoke on the panel.

The company is also working with Citrix on the possibility of running a virtualised Windows desktop on the user's choice of mobile phone, something that would require virtualisation on the handset to secure the session, Subar said.

New chip architectures from Arm, including the high-powered Cortex-A15 unveiled last month, could help to jumpstart mobile virtualisation, said Yoram Salinger, CEO of Red Bend Software, also on the panel. Arm designs the chips for most high-end mobile devices, including the Apple iPhone and Motorola Droid. Other observers also believe faster chips will allow for virtualised phones and tablets that can be used for cloud applications and even high-definition gaming.

Despite the complexity of running multiple operating systems on one phone, the impact of virtualisation on device performance should be so small it's not noticeable, Subar of OK Labs said.

The key to acceptance of virtualisation will be the benefits consumers see - and not having to think about it, VMware's Krishnamurti said.

"If customers see value in virtualisation, they're going to give you a break in terms of performance overhead or a little bit of usability overhead," he said. However, "the minute a consumer finds out that, 'Hey, this thing is actually running in a virtual machine,' you're kind of dead. You don't want to expose that."

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