Almost a year ago I wrote a piece entitled "Android Virtualization: It's Time."
The piece was a reaction to a rant from our new Mobile News columnist, James Kendrick that Android updates were taking way too long and that the process was inherently flawed because too many cooks were actually involved in the process: Google itself, the handset manufacturers and also the carriers.
The problem continued to be a serious one for Android throughout 2011, and at one point Google actually pledged with its handset manufacturers to actually do something about it, with a newly formed Android Update Alliance that was announced at Google IO back in May.
Six months after that alliance was formed, absolutely no progress has been made, and many in the industry believe that the idea to try to coordinate Android software updates on phones was doomed from its inception.
- Android Virtualization: It's time
- Why Android Updates are a mess: It's the business model
- Android 4.0 Updates: It's all about the money
Android fragmentation and update lag is a very real problem. It undermines consumer as well as developer confidence in the long-term sustainability of the platform, this despite the fact that Android now occupies the lion's share of the smartphone market.
Most of this lion's share that Android has attained has been gained at the expense of Research in Motion's BlackBerry which has been losing more and more market share every successive quarter due to lack of viable alternatives to both Android handsets as well as Apple's iPhone.
If this Android fragmentation and update problem is left unchecked, it could ultimately result in customers defecting from the platform and pursuing other options, such as as the iPhone as well as even Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 offering, both of which do not have these types of problems.
Why don't they have these problems? The answer is simple. In the case of both iOS and Windows Phone 7, both Apple and Microsoft have full control over their platforms.
Apple has complete vertical integration of the OS and the hardware. It also has a proven track record of updating the operating system on its products long after their sales cycles have completed.
Microsoft, while a relative newcomer to the smartphone scene, has done a good job at keeping its OEMs adhere to a reference platform to minimize hardware/software integration issues during product development and allows very minimal branding and value-added customization on the carrier side.
So far, Microsoft has rolled out its "Mango" update to its existing base of Windows Phones across all carriers and manufacturers. While Microsoft does not have the diversity of hardware that Android has with its smartphones, its ability to coordinate updates across the Windows Phone 7 products should not be discounted.
In contrast to both Apple and Microsoft, Google hasn't even managed to get version 2.3 "Gingerbread", the previous stable smartphone version of Android rolled out to all phones that were released in the last two years.
And it seems that even fairly recent devices might not get the latest Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" either, although it looks like OEMs like Samsung may have to capitulate on this issue despite the real possibility that the update might not be able to accomodate their "value add" software modifications on some of their models such as the Galaxy S line due to a lack of onboard memory.
So how does Google get out of this mess?
Well, the first answer is to do the unthinkable -- throw all the OEMs under the bus, and essentially go the Apple route. In this scenario, I see Motorola becoming the "most favored nation" for Android device manufacturing and only "Google Experience" devices being produced.
This still leaves room for pollution of the devices at the individual carriers themselves, but it's one less weak link in the chain, which is the OEM.
But this is a highly unrealistic scenario and I truly doubt Google would ever go that route, and for two reasons. The first is that the completion of Motorola acquisition is anything but a sure thing, and the second that there is no way Google actually believes it can truly maintain its market share with just a single manufacturer.
I think that we have to be prepared for a small, although very real possibility that the Motorola acquisition might not go through, in which case Google needs a plan B. Even assuming it does complete successfully, I don't think Google can actually write off Samsung, LG, HTC, ZTE and any number of other Android handset and tablet manufacturers and expect their ecosystem to sustain itself.
The actual solution to the Android update problem has been materializing in the background for the last two years and will almost certainly show its face sometime in productized form in 2012. And that's Android Virtualization.
In my previous article I discussed what benefits virtualizing the Android software stack and OS would bring to the table, and I talked about what vendors existed at the time which were working on products.
There are four companies and embedded hypervisors that I believe merit watching in this space: VMWare's mobile virtualization platform, Open Kernel Labs OKL4, Red Bend Software VLX and Intel's Wind River.
The last two I think have the most potential for causing disruptive activity and becoming the dominant leaders in device virtualization, although I also happen to think that both Open Kernel Labs and Red Bend should be considered prime acquisition targets by Google and also the various mobile semiconductor companies.
Red Bend merits considerable attention because it already has a large presence at the carriers themselves -- it's the dominant player in the space of provisioning and deploying Over The Air (OTA) software updates. Over one billion devices are managed by their provisioning solution at carriers worldwide.
In mid-2012, the company is expected to roll out the combination of its VLX mobile hypervisor along with a enterprise provisioning solution for Android and offer it as a packaged Software as a Service at various wireless carriers.
Initially, the solution will be targeted towards deploying secure corporate "Softphones" fo BYO enterprise device scenarios, but it could just as easily be used by a carrier to quickly deploy Android OS updates across a wide spectrum of devices which it could sell that support Red Bend's VLX as well.
I've actually seen Red Bend's VLX and provisioning combination in beta form and to say that I am extremely impressed with what the technology can do is an understatement. It will do for the wireless industry what Virtualization has done for the Datacenter and enterprise computing, which is to say it will be a game-changer.
Intel also merits a significant amount of attention in mobile virtualization in 2012.
While I am still dubious that x86 architecture will prove to be a long-term valid system for smartphones and tablets (as opposed to the ARM architecture which is enjoying complete dominance of the space right now) it could be argued that Intel's 32-nanometer "Medfield" has an inherent advantage that Samsung's, Texas Instruments', Qualcomm's and nVidia's ARM chips do not.
Intel is currently the only player currently which owns a smartphone/tablet semiconductor SoC platform as well as a mobile hypervisor for it to run on, in the form of Wind River's multicore platform.
Also Read: Wind River, Tasty Embedded Linux Treat
Intel, along with OEM handset partner LG, is expected to unveil an x86-based "Medfield" Android phone at CES on January 10. And if my suspicions are correct, it will also be the first Android smartphone reference platform to be virtualized from the ground up.
If Intel makes virtualization a key selling point of Medfield, then all bets are off. It would allow handset and tablet OEMs using that platform to very quickly deploy products and OS updates because along with the Medfield chip, the Wind River Linux platform also encompasses a full embedded Android software development and testing environment, something that even Google itself or even in combination with its other semiconductor partners cannot offer.
The next few weeks and months are going to bear watching. But one thing is clear: Android will be virtualized and productized as such on smartphones and tablets in 2012. You can bet on it.
Will 2012 bee the year that Android gets Virtual? Talk Back and Let Me Know.