Imagine a world where one mobile device serves as the primary communication and computing tool for any individual, one device to access the Internet, to make voice calls, send text messages, play music and watch videos, and run applications–one device for both work and for play. Before long, this vision will be reality. According to a recent survey of Internet leaders, activists, and analysts, mobile devices will provide the primary connection to the Internet for most people by 2020.
The once clear-cut distinction between mobile phones and PCs continues to blur. Emergence of netbooks and smartphones crystallizes the concept of converged devices. Looking beyond today's market to the next billion mobile devices, imagine new generations of phones and ultra-mobile PCs competing for market share.
Many users already show a preference for streamlined communication devices and happily pay a premium for them. Enterprises and business professionals are adopting connected devices, like the Blackberry and Palm Treo, with reasonable expectations of support from their IT departments. Moreover, adopters aren't just professionals. Popularity of the iPhone extends beyond affluent users, with working and middle-class purchasers choosing it to consolidate services in a single device with greater functionality. As economic pressures tighten spending, devices that replace multiple consumer electronics gadgets become more attractive. OEMs of mobile devices are following this lead and are developing multimedia-enabled devices in quick order: the recently introduced Nokia N97 and HTC Touch Diamond both combine traditional phone capabilities with mobile computer features.
The critical role of virtualization
As OEMs create the next generation of more capable devices, virtualization technology will play a critical role in addressing market needs and preferences. Gartner forecasts that by 2012, more than half of smartphones shipped will embed virtualization technology. The benefits of virtualization include increased processor utilization to reduce bill-of-materials (BOM) cost; protection of high-value IP; and system software that meets current and emerging security requirements.
Virtualization allows multiple operating systems to run on one processor. Rather than dedicating one processor for each operating system, virtualization lets designers better use one processor, optimizing device BOM for superior price-performance. Virtualization also increases flexibility and usability with multicore processors, accelerating development and cutting development cost.
More specifically, embedded virtualization confers advantage to handset developers by providing a unified software architecture to address multiple hardware designs. Virtualization lets developers segregate hardware-specific code into a single domain, making it portable across operating systems. As OEMs consolidate platforms and product lines, portability and reusability become paramount not just for efficiency, but for the OEMs' survival. Moreover, embedded virtualization mitigates risk in design and development processes for handset manufacturers, enabling more rapid response to changes in market direction.
As devices become increasingly open platforms, security grows in importance. The next billion devices will entail more complex designs, with greater connectivity and dramatically heavier network traffic. This highly-connected computing experience has a potential dark side. Connectivity and bandwidth open doors to security threats on devices and to the networks they use. Of particular concern are enterprise-connected devices. As companies deploy fleets of smartphones to conduct business, mobile data becomes more attractive to exploits and attacks.
Virtualization can alleviate many security concerns by providing an environment that encapsulates and protects mobile operating systems, device drivers, and other software stack components. In turn, securing these components increases the security of mobile applications and resident data. This encapsulation affords security beyond the handset when it's connected to other systems, from the enterprise network to the wireless operator, resulting in a safer and more reliable end-user experience.
As competition grows among handset makers and mobile platform providers, so does the importance of protecting proprietary content and programs. The mobile security challenge encompasses not just data and media, but also application software, underlying CODECs, and algorithms. IP needs protection not just from reverse engineering and outright piracy, but also from unintentionally matching incompatible software and licensing code.
From concept to reality
While virtualization technology can help realize the concept of a single device for communications and computing, there are other challenges facing handset makers. Two important considerations are making technology available and delivering enterprise applications and services to these devices.
To foster development of next-generation mobile devices, handset manufacturers need to rethink technology deployment from the lab to the marketplace. Mobile network operators and handset makers have long realized that for wide availability, easy integration, and wide community support, the answer lies in open-source operating systems; witness Linux-based operating systems like LiMo and Android, and soon-to-be-open Symbian OS. It follows that embedded virtualization should build from open source as well.
The shift to open source started with system software and today permeates the stack. But open-source adoption doesn't rest with OEMs alone. They are primarily consumers of open source. OEMs must work with the whole mobile ecosystem, reaching out to, fostering, and even creating open-source communities and initiatives. The next billion mobile devices–using open-source embedded virtualization–will pave the way for this shift.
Convergence of embedded and enterprise-application virtualization isn't about intersecting implementations. The two branches of virtualization share much but not all underlying technology; they exhibit comparable but not identical use cases; and they operate using similar mechanisms of otherwise disparate hardware architectures. Rather, the focus of convergence lies in a seamless and scalable user experience.
On mobile devices, application virtualization will provide access to documents, databases, and applications in a mobile-friendly interface; end-users will view and update documents and other corporate data and directly use the applications associated with that data. With the melding of mobile phone and PCs, OEMs and operators need to enable seamless delivery of enterprise applications and services to converged devices.
Extending virtualization from enterprise infrastructure to individual end-users is central to the vision of unified mobility. This extension is the locus of convergence, and enables delivery of corporate presence to any mobile device. Virtualization enables secure delivery and helps IT teams focus on delivery of corporate presence not managing the device itself. This paradigm sustains user choice and allows devices to serve both personal and business needs. With virtualization, instead of building new fleets of devices, corporate IT can deploy, manage, and secure applications on existing user devices.
The next billion devices
As consumer demand continues to drive innovation and push OEMs to develop new devices in ever-faster cycles, virtualization technology will make the next generation of mobile devices possible. It will be through virtualization that one mobile device will serve as the primary communication and computing tool for any individual. Virtualization will make these devices safe, affordable, protected, useful, and open, enabling innovation from the desktop to the mobile phone and beyond.
Steve Subar, president and CEO of OK Labs, cofounded the company following his term as NICTA's 2005 Entrepreneur-in-Residence. Subar can be reached at email@example.com
1. “The Future of the Internet III,” Janna Quitney Anderson, Elon University and Lee Rainie, Director, Pew Internet & American Life Project, December 14, 2008.
2. Virtualization Industry Predictions 2008, www.virtualization.info/predictions/, November 2008.