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Virtualization Makes Smartphones Into Laptop Surrogates

The Motorola Altrix is the first phone to market with Citrix Systems' Nirvana environment able to present virtualized desktop apps.

The Motorola Atrix smartphone introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is the first of what may soon prove to be a broad generation of handsets that can double as a laptop computer. The phone has a hypervisor embedded in it that can receive and run the presentation of a Windows application on a large screen.

In that sense Atrix is more than a smartphone. It's a device intelligent enough to sub as a PC and give its user access to a standard office desktop while on the road. While it has an Apple iPhone-like screen of 940 by 560 pixels, the hypervisor's main use is not to display Windows applications themselves, but rather to project them onto a full-sized screen. To do so, the phone needs to be fit into a special cradle to which a mouse and screen may be attached. Until the Nirvana cradles are widespread, the capability will be of limited usefulness. But it's still one of the first examples of how one day we're all likely to leave the PC behind when we head for the airport.

The embedded hypervisor comes from Citrix Systems, part of its Citrix Receiver client, and while Motorola is the first to issue a Nirvana phone with the client, Citrix spokesmen hope that it will not be the last.

Citrix announced it was partnering with Open Kernel Labs last February to specify a Nirvana cell phone environment that could be adopted by any manufacturer. Nirvana combined Open Kernel Labs' micro hypervisor with Citrix Receiver, client software that can be geared to a particular device and run either Windows or Macintosh virtualized applications. Those applications have to be hosted on a central server under XenApp or XenDesktop, Citrix Systems' core virtualization management products.

That, of course, means buying the Altrix to sub for your laptop is not a good idea, unless your company is prepared to support that move. But Citrix XenApp is currently the best established system for running virtualized Windows applications on a central server, and XenDesktop adds the capability of reaching several different clients using desktop virtualization protocols geared to provide smooth multimedia and video presentations. Both can use the Altrix phone as a client device that shows the running application.

Chris Fleck, Citrix VP of community and solutions development, in a blog Jan. 5, said a company could provide a standard log-in page and have users sign in with standard user names and passwords. They would then be "presented with your Web interface list of Windows work applications from XenApp, or a full Windows 7 Virtual Desktop provided by XenDesktop. The apps run just as if it were a local PC, and often faster," he claimed.

Motorola is selling an optional docking device with the phone, similar in theory to the Palm's Foleo device several years ago. The Motorola docking device weighs 2.5 pounds, so the gain in the tradeoff with the laptop isn't without its own pain. The dock allows a user to plug in a full-sized keyboard, a full-sized screen, and USB devices.

Although Motorola is first to market, there's little reason the Nirvana specification won't work with other handsets. Citrix has receiver clients for the Apple iPhone, the RIM BlackBerry, Nokia and other Symbian handsets, Google Android, and the mobile versions of Linux and Windows.

"I've used it at work with the dock, at home with various TVs and displays, in hotel rooms with the LCD TV, in guest cubicles with PC monitors, and with meeting room projectors. There are a few remaining limitations, but nothing to keep this setup from making any road warrior or knowledge worker more mobile and productive," said Fleck in his blog.

Companies with distributed workforces could establish visitor cubicles already equipped with the dock so that an Altrix or other Nirvana phone would be all that would be needed to access your familiar desktop at the office.

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