The future of personal computing

I use a Linux desktop PC for software development at work. The mini-tower takes up a chunk of floor space and is immobile. The only way to access my work remotely is through a VPN, much like the rest of the world.  The PC sports quad 3.4 GHz Core i7s with 8 GB RAM.

My MacBook laptop is a little older, has dual 2.66 GHz cores and 8 GB RAM. The laptop is also a “personal computer”: I use it to organize my digital life—presentations, e-mail, video conferencing, photos, and web browsing. But lugging the laptop on planes, through airports, and the security lines is a PITA. The laptop is mobile but cumbersome. Those of you who travel a lot know what I'm talking about.

A modern infotainment system is another form of personal computer—play your music, connect your phone, navigate to your favorite places. The infotainment system is as mobile as your car, but you can't take it into the library, into your house or office, or on a plane.

That brings us to the smartphone and tablet. These are truly personal devices. We debate the features and deficiencies of our phones with as much vigor as politicians sparring over the national debt or Obama's birthplace.

Within a year or two, personal phones will be imbued with quadcore processors at 2 GHz a pop—8 aggregate GHz!  Compare with my 5 GHz laptop. Sure, performance is driven by much more than GHz, but still—no doubt this is sufficient for most people's desktop needs. 32 GB microSD is now common in smartphones, 64 GB will be common soon. Add a way to dock the phone to desktop KVM, and now we're cooking with gas: the truly mobile personal computer.

The vast majority of these devices will use ARM-based processors from Qualcomm, TI, Nvidia, and others instead of the Intel-based chipsets on today's laptops and desktops.  But note the recent rumor that Intel has landed its first mobile phone design win at ZTE. Not familiar with China's ZTE? It is #4 in world mobile phone market share.

The battleground for personal computing domination is rapidly transitioning from bulky fixed systems to personal handheld devices.

And this is where security comes into play in a big way.  Using a distinctly personal device for sensitive corporate work is a different ballgame than today's well managed IT world. If you send email on your corporate laptop, you hopefully have been trained to assume that the information within is public. That doesn't work for phones. As consumers, we want guarantees that the company (and the rest of the world) can't access our private information.  Corporations want guarantees that the random mobile phone brought to work by an employee will not put corporate intellectual property or critical functions at risk.

The answer is simple. We need securely isolated virtual environments for our personal phone and our corporate phone. Add another for my virtual infotainment system, enabled by docking in any car; automakers need not develop expensive head units, just the software for my virtual car persona.

Next year's ARM-based devices will—for the first time—have what's called ARM Virtualization Extensions (VE)—that make multiple persona practical to deploy. And Intel has its VT technology for the same purpose. I can use Android for my personal world and Redhat Linux or Windows 8 for my corporate world. My IT director can remotely manage my corporate persona—she can enforce encryption policies and determine what apps are permitted. But my Android persona is private.

I can't wait until the desktop runs on my phone—what a wonderful world that will be.

Dave Kleidermacher is CTO of Green Hills Software. He writes about security issues, sharing his insights on techniques to improve the security of software for highly critical embedded systems.

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