VMware to virtualize Android smartphones for business users

Mobile hypervisor will separate corporate and personal data

VMware is teaming up with LG to sell Android smartphones that are virtualized, allowing a single phone to run two operating systems, one for business use and one for personal use.

VMware is teaming with LG to sell Android smartphones that are virtualized, allowing a single phone to run two operating systems, one for business use and one for personal use.

The companies believe virtualization can provide separation between work and personal applications and data, solving many of the smartphone management problems caused by end users who want to connect personal phones to work systems.

VMware vs. Microsoft vs. Citrix

The technology will work much like a server or desktop hypervisor. A user’s personal email and applications would run natively on the Android phone, while a guest operating system contains the employee’s work environment. The devices would also have two phone numbers.

“The end user computing model is changing dramatically. There are a lot more devices coming into the enterprise,” says Srinivas Krishnamurti, senior director of mobile technology for VMware. “When we talk to CIOs, they say the diversity is quite problematic and it’s hard to figure out how to best support employees. A lot of enterprises want to support employee-owned phones, but are concerned about security and manageability of corporate content.”

VMware’s Mobile Virtualization Platform stems from the 2008 acquisition of Trango, which was building a hypervisor for smartphones.

This week’s announcement specifically relates to a partnership with LG to get virtualization-enabled Android smartphones on the market sometime in 2011. VMware’s announcement discusses only smartphones, but tablets based on Android would presumably be eligible for the virtualization technology as well.  

In terms of whether iPhones and BlackBerries will get the same treatment, VMware says it wants the hypervisor on as many mobile operating systems as possible. But the open source nature of Google’s Android helped make it the first choice.

Krishnamurti notes that “We talk to OEM partners and there’s a tremendous amount of interest in the [Google] Android platform. It’s open. That’s the one we’re focusing on first.”

Users who buy virtualization-enabled phones may not even notice the hypervisor. “It’s just another app,” Krishnamurti says.

But another subset of users, who want access to work applications on personal devices, may see the embedded virtualization as a selling point. From a practical standpoint, the user would switch between personal and work environments simply by tapping an icon.

The home and work spaces would each have its own set of applications. However, phone calls and reminders for either the work or personal profile would come through at any time. Allowing both phone numbers to work seamlessly, including letting users put a personal call on hold to answer a work call, was one of the thorniest technical challenges, company officials say.

From an IT management perspective, VMware will sell management tools as well as provide a software development kit that lets existing management platforms connect to the VMware system. One potential management benefit of a virtualized phone is that IT could encrypt the work data or perform remote wipes without affecting a user’s personal stuff.

For the guest operating system, VMware and LG gave the example of a second instance of Android running on top of the host Android OS. It remains to be seen whether technical reasons or licensing concerns could prevent IT shops from installing other mobile operating systems as guests on top of the virtualized Android devices.

On this issue, VMware says: “VMware's strategy with mobile phones will be very similar to our approach in the PC space. Users have the ability to run any supported guest operating system as long as it complies with predetermined licensing guidelines.”

No pricing is being announced yet for the virtualized Android phones, and neither VMware nor LG would say when exactly in 2011 they expect the first devices to hit the market.

“We want to make this available to as many phones as possible,” says James Park, LG’s director of strategy and business development.

While LG is the first phone manufacturer to hop on board, Krishnamurti says VMware is “talking to a lot of OEM’s and carrier partners.”

IDC analyst Ian Song says VMware will probably beat rival Citrix to market in the mobile hypervisor space, but that LG is not the ideal partner. VMware is likely trying to sign up additional manufacturers, such as Samsung, he says.

“LG has virtually no presence in the Android market,” Song said.

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