Virtualization in Your Pocket

Wayne Rash

I have to admit that I had to do some thinking when I got the press release from Open Kernel Labs (OK Labs) about their new virtualization capability for mobile devices. This is not to suggest that I doubted it was possible-processors in mobile devices are already more powerful than the stuff that ran in enterprise servers a few years ago. What I had to think about is why this might be useful.

Partly, this is because most mobile devices today are pretty hard-wired to their operating systems. You don't normally see iPhones with the Android OS, for example. It's not that Android might not run on an iPhone-it probably would. It's that Apple is unlikely to permit it. The same thing is true with RIM's BlackBerry devices. You have one choice for the brand of OS, and that's the one that comes from the company.

But then I recalled that my son-in-law had just finished setting up his T-Mobile Windows phone so that it would dual-boot Linux, so I realized that the problem was in my shortage of imagination, not with the concept of virtualization. So OK. OK Labs has a hypervisor (although they call it a microvisor) that will work on a smartphone.

At this point I called the company to see what else they could tell me about virtualized smartphones. It turns out that they actually had some good ideas. A spokesperson at the company explained that virtualization on a smartphone is actually an ideal solution for a person that wants to use their smartphone for both personal and business operations. By using a virtualized environment, both parts of the phone could be kept completely separate and secure. The business applications e-mail and messaging can be kept in one virtual environment, and the personal stuff in another. There's no risk that one would pass over into the other.

And, of course, a smartphone could run two operating systems such as Windows Mobile and Linux. Or two versions of Android if you're a developer. There are, in fact, a lot of reasons why a virtual environment might be useful.

The OK Labs spokesperson also told me that she expects to see half of all mobile devices running virtual environments in another two years. Given the growing popularity of tablets and other devices that aren't phones, I can see where this could happen. I think in some ways a virtualized platform that's a tablet might be more useful than a phone. But maybe I'm wrong.

Either way, given that mobile devices are already supporting multi-core processors, multi-processing, and are getting large memory installations, it's clearly becoming technically possible already. And, in fact, the OK Labs virtualization platform is already running. The question still remains, what are companies going to do with it? I don't know the answers to that, but I'll bet they'll be interesting.

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