What Virtualization Can Do For Your Smartphone
We use smartphones like computers, it's time to start treating them like real handheld computers.
That thing you carry around in your pocket is less and less being used as a phone, so why is its phone use the biggest determiner in your network use contract? Think about it: If you need a restaurant reservation, you don't call, you use OpenTable. Want a cab? Taximagic or Cabulous to the rescue. Arranging a time to meet with friends? A few text messages will do the job. Discussing work projects? Email is the ticket. Haven't talked to your mother in a few weeks? Oh come on, it wouldn't kill you to call. It's your mother after all--and she wants to hear your voice.
You get my point. If we'd never had the notion of a wireless phone up until now, you'd be going to an app store to pick your call-making app just like you pick an email client or cab finder or any other application that runs on your handheld computer. What the call app gets you is access to the SS7 network where all PSTN calls are routed.
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Work has been going on for years to make this possible. Goals have been as simple as getting SMS traffic off of GSM networks or as grand as running most PSTN signaling over IP to allow any connection that had been set up on SS7 to be set up via IP. Phone apps could be Facetime, Skype, GoogleTalk, or something provided by today's phone companies, and just like you have more than one email account, you could have more than one voice app.
[ What's the impact of iPhone 4S? Read our our exclusive report. ]
If you take this notion with recent work being done to bring hypervisors to smartphones and you really have something. On the one hand, you have VMware bringing its Mobile Virtualization Platform to market, which it now calls Horizon Mobile. Though it didn't start out that way, Horizon Mobile is a type two hypervisor, which means it runs as an app on top of Android--which gets VMware out of the thorny problem of supporting every phone variant anyone might come up with. As such, it's a way to separate out environments, say for work and personal use, but you'd better be happy being a VMware customer.
On the other hand, you have efforts to bring the Xen hypervisor to ARM chip. In this case, Xen will talk to the bare metal hardware, and Android will talk to the Xen virtual machine. Since Xen is open source, the thorny issue of hardware support lands right back where it should be--with the hardware manufacturers.
In both cases, IT architects can imagine ways to keep the safeguards they want while allowing end users the ability to have their own environment and personal files. However, if hardware vendors actively support Xen--and there's much more interest in doing so now that the ARM architecture has been updated to support virtualization by adding some key hardware features required for high performance in fully virtualized environments--there's a lot to recommend this model. Hardware manufacturers win because they only need to support hypervisors, leaving operating systems like Android, Windows 8, or webOS to support the virtual machine interface they provide.
Everyone gets a much simpler hardware support model. The base hardware and lowest level OS will be less susceptible to malware since hypervisors present a much smaller attack surface. And users and IT organizations should get a lot more choice in how the device is used. At least from a technical view point, as long as the hardware supports the required networks, users could pick one carrier, corporations could pick another, and both could be accessed from the same device. Corporate data can protected from personal apps, and users can be assured of some privacy from corporate managers and policies.
The applications go beyond just separating work from personal use. Users might want different virtualized environments for gaming or for separating out work with hobbies, politics, churches, or charities. Where you might be willing to put up with different laptops or desktops for each of these purposes, when it comes to smartphones you really only want to carry around one device. Users outside of the U.S. are already used to unlocked devices, and virtualization could be the magic bullet app that makes it happen here. Three different data-only plans on the same phone? Why not?
Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Reports, a portfolio of decision-support tools and research reports. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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