Virtualization Goes Mobile

The technology could finally lead to one phone that does everything well. It's still early, but Motorola, Cisco, and Intel want in

Peter Richards, who runs software startup VirtualLogix, carries three phones. He uses a Research In Motion (RIMM) BlackBerry Curve 8300 for e-mail, a Motorola (MOT) Razr for calls, and an Apple (AAPL) iPhone for mobile Web browsing. He'd rather get that combination of features from a single phone.

Sunnyvale (Calif.)'s VirtualLogix wants to help build that phone using a kind of software known as virtualization, which increases the efficiency of computers. One of last year's most successful initial share sales came from VMware (VMW), a company that uses virtualization technology to help companies make better use of their servers, the computers that run Web sites and corporate networks. Orders for VMware's products surged 88% in 2007, to $1.33 billion. VirtualLogix and a handful of other companies, including Trango Virtual Processors, Green Hills Software, Open Kernel Labs, and Wind River Systems (WIND), are hoping to replicate that success by applying virtualization to cell phones.

Handset makers could use virtualization to more easily replicate the features found in one another's devices and confront the threat posed by Apple, which introduced the iPhone in 2007. Virtualization could also help cell-phone makers offer more features at a lower price. "Ultimately, the [handset] winner is going to be determined by their ability to manage security, costs, and time [to market]," says Steve Subar, CEO of Open Kernel. VirtualLogix got a push forward in its effort by a funding infusion from Motorola, unveiled on Apr. 21.

The Modular Mobile Phone

Here's how mobile virtualization works. Currently, programmers have to rewrite every application—be it a game, social networking service, or other feature—for each of the various operating systems, including Symbian, Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Mobile, or Google's (GOOG) Android. The tinkering can take months. But virtualization software would enable a mobile-phone maker to add features regardless of the operating system. So Motorola could grab a Web-browsing application written for one system, an e-mail application for another, and calling features designed for a third OS, and elegantly integrate them in one phone. That could significantly speed up the phone-design process. "It's certainly a difference of months," says Bill Weinberg, an industry analyst at consulting firm

Virtualization also helps a phone run with fewer chips. Today, mobile phones typically require a baseband processor, which enables the phone to communicate; an applications processor, responsible for running applications like e-mail; and a multimedia chip, which handles graphics, audio, and video. But a virtualized phone can accomplish all of the above with just one or two processors instead of three. "In terms of the ability to consolidate hardware, there are parallels to servers," says Matt Volckmann, a senior analyst at consultancy Venture Development. Open Kernel Labs estimates that handset makers would save $5 to $10 per phone.

Virtualization could also help carriers respond to security challenges that are expected to ensue as networks are thrown open to competing devices and applications.

Virtualization software will help operators give preference to "trusted" applications. Operators may "give [untrusted applications and devices] access to only part of the network and limit the bandwidth available to them," says Weinberg. That way a malicious virus won't be able to shut down the whole wireless network.

The mobile-virtualization market is still nascent. A recent Venture Development survey showed that less than 5% of some 200 engineer respondents used virtualization in phones or other consumer devices. About 31% of the respondents were not even familiar with the technology. Nearly half didn't know of its benefits. But that may be changing. "We see this whole area as becoming of increased importance," says Reese Schroeder, a managing director at Motorola Ventures, which made the VirtualLogix investment for an undisclosed amount. "We invest in companies that we think have good strategic potential with one or two Motorola business units."

Big-Name Investors

Motorola's investment follows similar moves by chipmakers Intel (INTC) and Texas Instruments (TXN), which invested in VirtualLogix last year. Cisco Systems (CSCO) has been an investor in the company since 2004. Samsung is testing VirtualLogix's technology. And Intel is "evaluating where we may take advantage of [VirtualLogix's software] in our products," says Bryan Wolf, managing director of the digital enterprise group at Intel.

Meanwhile, software from VirtualLogix's rival, Open Kernel Labs, is available in an HTC phone from Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel (S). And the company, whose customers also include Qualcomm (QCOM), Toshiba, and Samsung, expects to announce two more customers in the next two weeks. "This is going to be a fairly quick and large adoption rate," Wolf says.

Despite such optimistic projections, the path for mobile virtualization is uncertain. The software can occasionally slow a phone's performance by as much as 10%, says Weinberg. (In other instances it can boost a phone's speed, analysts say.) This market's success hinges in large part on demand from cell-phone makers. "For it to be successful, virtualization needs to be something handset manufacturers are heavily invested in," says Venture Development's Volckmann.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.