Mobile device virtualization to solve user access woes?

Virtualization of mobile devices, particularly smartphones, will allow IT administrators to have greater control over employees' handsets, but vendors will have to ensure end-user experience is not compromised, note industry watchers.

As consumer devices such as Apple's iPhone and iPad as well as smartphones powered by Google's Android mobile operating system (OS) enter the enterprise space, IT administrators are having trouble provisioning secure access to business applications for employees using these gadgets. But virtualizing the devices may be the answer to help surmount such challenges, noted industry watchers.

Andrew Dutton, senior vice president and general manager of VMware Asia-Pacific and Japan, said that potential applications of mobile virtualization would include users utilizing one mobile device to access both personal and business-related data. There could also be easier configuring of office e-mail, Web access and corporate applications for the IT department, and quicker roll-out of features and applications by handset makers.

The executive elaborated that virtualizing one's handset will make it possible to create separate identities on the device for both work and personal use. This, in turn, will ensure that employees are meeting compliance standards when working on company applications, he said. Similarly, by creating a corporate identity on the phone, employees can toggle between personal and work applications with peace of mind, knowing that corporate apps are being managed and secured centrally in the company's virtualized data center, Dutton said in an e-mail.

He also noted that organizations are beginning to see virtualization of end-user devices such as smartphones as part of their broader cloud computing strategy. It's no longer enough just to virtualize the firm's data center and change how apps are written. These days, devices that will run these apps have to be optimized for the cloud as well, he added.

Dutton's assessment is corroborated by IDC's James Oh. The research manager for client devices practice group said the "biggest benefit" for end-users will be the convenience of carrying their personal mobile device with the ability to tap into their business data and apps on-the-go.

Good user experience is key
The analyst tempered expectations by pointing out that mobile virtualization vendors will have to provide an end-user experience that is comparable to what they have been receiving so far.

"It will be frustrating for end-users to wrestle with slow or unresponsive devices or applications on the road or be caught with a powerless device," Oh noted. "Technology providers will have to ensure that [virtualized mobile devices] do not deteriorate the end-user experience, exacerbate battery life issues and risk disappointing consumers' high expectations."

He also stated that the technology will probably take a few years to "play out before mass adoption", as IT vendors will have to educate and convince everyone on the benefits promised without compromising on the end-user experience.

VMware's Dutton also noted that mainstream adoption will likely come within the next three to five years.

In the meantime, there are a couple of main challenges to overcome, he said. Firstly, handset makers and service providers need to recognize the potential for virtualization on mobile phones to simplify the delivery of mobile apps and user-specific information.

"Given the fact that more people are starting to access corporate and lifestyle information from mobile phones, the ROI (return on investment) for mobile virtualization can be as impactful as that of PCs and servers. [This is because virtualization] enables users to access data when and where they need it regardless of the device they use," said Dutton.

Secondly, the battle for market share between mobile OS providers such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft with its recently launched Windows Phone 7, as well as Nokia with its Symbian platform will have to stabilize before the industry can look more closely at virtualization for mobile devices, he noted.

In an earlier report by technology Web site Computerworld, Srinivas Krishnamurti, senior director for mobile solutions at VMware, also pointed out that, ultimately, the key for widespread acceptance of mobile virtualization will be benefits that consumers can see but not have to worry about the technology used.

"If customers see value in virtualization, they're going to give you a break in terms of performance overhead or a little bit of usability overhead," he said in the article. "However, the minute a consumer finds out that, 'Hey, this thing is actually running in a virtual machine', you're kind of dead. You don't want to expose that."