Not quite ready for prime time, but well beyond the point of speculation, mobile hypervisors are set to start reshaping the way that businesses and consumers will view the mobile devices.

VMware Horizon Mobile

VMware had plans for a mobile hypervisor as far back as 2006 when it tasked a team of internal developers to build a prototype platform, only to abandon the project in favor of acquisition-based strategy, acquiring French company Trango Virtual Processors which had already built a functioning type I hypervisor in November 2008.  VMware publicly demonstrated an updated version of the Trango technology, now dubbed Mobile Virtualization Platform (MVP), in the following 18 months suggesting that they were on track to deliver production ready code at some point in the near future. However, at VMworld 2010 in San Francisco, VMware changed track again, announcing that was abandoning its plans to release a type I mobile hypervisor, and was instead focusing its efforts on a new type II hypervisor solution which would retain the MVP moniker. A little over one year later at VMworld Europe in October 2011, VMware and LG demonstrated a new smart phone running MVP,  now renamed VMware Horizon Mobile, and announced that both Verizon and Telefónica had committed to offering services based on the technology, with promises that hardware would be shipping before the end of the year. The promised 2011 deadline may have slipped a little, but at CES in Las Vegas this week, LG begin repeated its commitment to ship phones running VMware Horizon Mobile “in a matter of months”.

Although VMware has never published the reason why it abandoned development of  its type I mobile hypervisor, it clear that the technical challenges of developing a type I hypervisor far outweigh the challenges  of type II. From a practical perspective the single biggest challenge of  developing for mobile devices is that compared to the server and desktop PC market, the mobile device manufacturing business is close to anarchy. Enterprise IT requirements have created a market for servers and PCs where standardization rules. An enterprise-class server or desktop model range remains largely unchanged aside from minor speed bump revisions for 2-3 years before being  superseded by a newer device whose specifications were defined a year before the hardware was shipped. In comparison, cell phones appear to be made in the same way that a 4 year old child might build something from Lego – pull a handful of pieces out of the box and see what fits together, repeat. It’s hard making a type I hypervisor under those circumstances, it’s even harder when new handset are released every few weeks.

US Adoption

Finally then, after six years of teasing and hoping, is VMware’s mobile hypervisor really coming? Yes but probably not to the US, at least not just yet. It it will be Telefónica and not Verizon that will be the first to offer LG phones running Horizon Mobile. Although Telefónica operates in the US, it offers datacenter services only. Even so, Telefónica is probably the ideal launch partner for LG and VMware. Telefónica provide extensive services either directly or through partnerships in markets such as China, India and South America where dual SIM phones are commonly used to overcome the challenges of finding a single carrier offering adequate coverage. In these markets many customers use dual SIM phones with one SIM for their primary communications provider and the other to provide coverage in locations where their primary provider does not offer service. Phones running a mobile hypervisor can have both physical and virtual SIM cards (possibly even multiple virtual SIM cards) allowing handset manufacturers to standardize on single SIM handsets, creating new market opportunities for communications providers and significantly improving handset user experience.

Even if Verizon will be the first to offer a mobile hypervisor on cell phone in the US, it is far from clear that it will see any significant benefit from being able to do so. Interest in mobile hypervisors in the US is influenced by the desired to separate a single physical phone into separate business and personal identities rather the need to overcome coverage weaknesses. This means that the major market for mobile hypervisor enabled handsets will be enterprise customers who are inevitably more cautious than individual consumers which will further slow adoption and most mobile operators are still educating themselves how to package and market services that can take benefit from mobile hypervisors.  Most significantly, despite VMware’s confidence, the comparative lack of security of type II hypervisors will be closely examined by potential enterprise customers.  While the Carrier IQ hysteria has largely subsided, the attention it drew to the security vulnerabilities of mobile devices has highlighted a fundamental shortcoming of any type II hypervisor – they provide at best only partial defense against malware.

Red Bend vLogix Mobil 5.0

“… software inside mobile devices needs to constantly adjust to the changing needs of people”

 Lori Sylvia, EVP Marketing Red Bend 

When on January 5th Red Bend Software announced the release of vLogix Mobile™ 5.0, describing it as “the first [type-1] Mobile Virtualization solution ready for mass-market deployment to consumer and enterprise smartphones, tablets, modems and wirelessly connected device” it represented a major milestone for the industry. (Red Bend is a leader in providing solutions to enable mobile phone firmware to be updated over the air. According to market research firm Ovum, Red Bend had 71% market share of FOTA (firmware over the air) enabled phones as of Q4 2009). vLogix Mobile is built on the VLX type 1 mobile hypervisor from VirtualLogix that Red Bend acquired in September 2010. This move surprised many in the industry, expecting that Red Bend might move to acquire a Mobile Device Management (MDM) vendor instead. Red Bend however saw virtualization as a means of advancing its vision of using FOTA not as a device management technology per se, but as a way to continuously improve mobile devices.  Red Bend’s viewpoint appears to have been proven correct, as user-centric Mobile Application Management solutions highlight the shortcomings of device-centric management technologies.

In the year between Red Bend’s acquisition of VirtualLogix and the launch of vLogix Mobile 5.0, Red Bend worked to rearchitech vLogix Mobile to allow it to keep pace with the handset manufacturers’ rapid development cycles and to support ARM’s Cortex-A15 processor’s hardware virtualization features which enables virtualization to be used without impacting device performance or battery life. Now with the Cortex-A15 established as the de facto standard processor for tablets and smartphones type I mobile hypervisors are no longer science projects but realistic mass market opportunities.

According to Red Bend, vLogix Mobile has been licensed by more manufacturers to virtualize more smartphones and connected devices than all other mobile virtualization products combined. Mobile Virtualization software vendors Open Kernel Labs and WindRiver might both dispute this, but while both offer hypervisors for the ARM Cortex-A7 processor neither has yet offered a solution specifically aimed at hosting full guest operating systems.  IDC has reported that  “over 1 million devices [have] shipped with VirtualLogix’s type 1 hypervisor technology embedded on them”. While that may be over 1 million more devices than the number running Horizon Mobile, it’s still less than 0.1% of the total number of handsets sold worldwide in 2011.

So far, as with solutions from Open Kernel Labs and WindRiver, vLogix Mobile has been used primarily as a hardware abstraction layer to simplify software development processes across multiple hardware platforms lowering the cost of development of mass-market smartphones. In common with VMware, Red Bend sees an emerging opportunity for the mobile hypervisor in securing and partitioning handsets to allow a single device to contain both personal and business environments. Although as attractive as it may seem this does not mean that it will be possible for the consumer to pick and choose which operating systems will be installed alongside each other on this same device. Conflicting hardware standards in terms of the physical buttons demanded by different operating systems and the complexity of licensing operating systems for OEM implementation are sure to delay this possibility.

As with Mobile Horizon, the chief challenges are getting the technology integrated into the supply chain and developing appropriate products and services that can take advantage of virtualization. In this respect Red Bend as a significant advantage over VMware. Red Bend is already an established provider to both handset manufacturers and communications providers, and in contrast to VMware, Red Bend is not limiting its marketing efforts to mobile handsets, seeing opportunities for mobile virtualization tablets, set-top boxes, and other areas of consumer electronics. To date over 1.4 billion mobile devices using Red Bend technology have shipped, and it can use its comprehensive network of customers and technology partners to advance vLogix Mobile’s deployment. Even so, Red Bend does not expect to see significant adoption in 2012, suggesting that although it has over 90 existing customers many more in the pipeline, and a number of handsets will be available for sale this year, it will be 2013 before the industry is ready for widespread consumer adoption.

Red Bend’s FOTA expertise gives it the opportunity to create a new approach to MDM that is exempt the shortcomings of existing implementations, while offering the potential to be almost as user friendly as Mobile Application Management systems. FOTA + type II hypervisor will give CTOs the kind of phone and tablet management that they been waiting for ever since Apple opened their eyes to the possibilities BYOD.

The Bottom Line

If VMware succeeds in getting Horizon Mobile into customers’ hands this year it will be a major virtualization milestone in its own right and a stepping stone towards widespread adoption. VMware’s real challenge though is breaking in to the US market. If enterprise IT dismisses the type II hypervisor for failing to meet its security needs, the US market could be Red Bend’s for the taking. This, given VMware’s previous decision to abandon development of a type I hypervisor would almost certainly shut VMware out of the US market for the foreseeable future.

Regardless of whether or not there is one single winner between type I and type II mobile hypervisors, the one company that currently stands to lose most in this shift is Apple. To date Apple has offered almost nothing in the way of support for enterprise device management needs. Forcing enterprises to adopt third-party application management tools to control the endpoint. At the same time it has shown no interest in virtualization on any platform, further limiting enterprise management opportunities. This intransigence could well push businesses to adopt a BYOD policy that could be summarized as “Bring Your Own Device, so long as it’s not running iOS”. Given Steve Jobs well-publicized antagonism towards Android, it would be ironic if the company who’s hardware was responsible for the initial stimulus behind BYOD was shut out of the enterprise market due to an unwillingness to adopt core technology needed to allow widespread enterprise adoption. The wildcard here has to be Microsoft, Windows Phone is bumping along today with less than 3% of the overall market. Microsoft really needs a greater percentage of the overall market to protect its core desktop operating system from further encroachment by Apple. If it can strike deals with handset manufacturers and providers to get Windows Phone and in the future Windows 8 installed as a virtual device alongside Android, it can use this to get Windows Phone in front of a larger number of consumers and at the same time push it to enterprise customers. This is not as far-fetched as it might sound, Microsoft has significant leverage over handset manufacturers due to the number of patents it owns that are essential to Android and the royalties it charges handset manufacturers. Given the strength of Microsoft’s development platform, Windows Phone might well become the preferred enterprise mobile platform with android alongside it as a consumer product.

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Simon Bramfitt (125 Posts)

Simon is an independent industry analyst covering enterprise desktop, mobile and application virtualization, delivery and management technologies.

He is an experienced solutions architect with unmatched insight into the challenges of designing large (200,000 seat plus) high availability presentation and desktop virtualization systems.

Simon was invited to join the Citrix Technology Professionals (CTP) group in May 2010 and joined the Virtualization Practice in September 2010

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