China wholesaler preps mobile OS with a twist: apps run in cloud, not on gadget

Putting resource-intensive processes in cloud makes stupid phones look smart

In case you needed more evidence that cloud technology is rearranging all the puzzle pieces that make up the IT industry: A Chinese company best known for wholesaling low-cost phones and gadgets is developing an operating system that will run even on underpowered gear by stashing many of its more powerful features in the cloud.

According to an anonymously sourced Wall Street Journal story yesterday, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Is working on a mobile OS designed to reduce the power and cost required in a smartphone by running applications and some other services on easily accessible servers in the cloud.

Without the emphasis on putting much of the functionality in the cloud, few would pay attention to an unconfirmed report of an unreleased mobile OS from a company not known for any kind of commercial software, let alone mobile OSes.

Android, iOS and all the other major mobile operating systems with which Alibaba's will compete install much of the logic as client software in the phones themselves.

That improves performance by keeping the phone from having to send news to the server that the user just pushed a "#" and waiting for the server to reply. It also requires the phone have far more power built in than if it were designed simply to make calls, send texts and display images of the user interface for apps running on backend servers.

It's not actually a new idea. Most virtualization systems designed to connect smartphones as secure nodes in a business network do the same thing. So do dumb terminals in shared-application, shared-server environments in call centers, banks and other group-computing environments.

As user have become more accustomed to phones entertaining them with rich graphics and powerful connections to the Internet and corporate apps, demand for more power has risen even faster than the skyrocketing amount of power in the phones themselves.

Taking some of the load off the phone and putting it back on the server makes a lot of sense if you're looking at it from the point of view of an application or network architect. It makes a lot of sense if you're a corporate security pro looking at highly losable, questionably secure smartphones as device employees can use to access your most sensitive data.

That's why VMware is rushing to expand the capabilities and devices on which its VMware View desktop virtualization system can run as it tries to catch up to the core competence of virtualization-rival Citrix.

It's also why Citrix is laughing maniacally as it adds even more devices to the long list of gadgets that Citrix Receiver can turn into mobile clients for corporate apps, especially those running on XenServer or Windows Server 2008, which compete with VMware's core products.

That doesn't mean it's always a good idea to put too much of an app in the cloud when the client is a comparatively stupid mobile device whose connection to the network – let alone its steadily high-bandwidth connection – is spotty.

Many iOS and Android apps already count on instant access to the network for current data without which the apps would be useless – weather apps for example, or GPS or voice-to-text transcriptions.

Most virtualized setups also rely on server-based data, security and processing power. Often what the end user sees is the image of a remotely hosted app that stores minimal data for authentication, personalization or display in the phone's cache or memory.

By encrypting data within VPNs, the connection is secure, but the hypervisor that lives on the phone to create a second, secure operating system to support the connection sucks up a lot of resources that are very limited on most phones.

They also run pretty slow on those one- and two-bar network-connection days, especially if the graphics are particularly rich or the apps require a lot of data to be sent back and forth.

With the unknown but largely suspect new versions of apps users would put on phones running a completely new operating system, it's virtually certain many of those apps would suck the life out of users waiting for them to respond or brick the phones they run on.

The first version of the OS will be aimed at Chinese users and China-based apps, according to the WSJ story, but it could expand if it turns out to be a good competitor for iOS and Android.

If you make smartphones, mobile OSes or apps, Alibaba is now a player you need to watch. If you run mobile apps or networks for corporate IT, you don't have to think much about Alibaba right now.

If it makes the cut in China it will expand into the non-Kanji market pretty quickly, though iOS and Android have such a lead in marketshare and app support it's hard to see Alibaba getting anywhere.

Unless it built in the kind of security and virtualization support that already comes with mobile virtualization products, the new OS won't get anywhere as a mobile-virtualization platform. Not quickly, anyway.

Alibaba's example should make mobile-app managers think again about the kinds of issues that were big when client/server came in for the first time: namely, how much work does a given app require, how much of that work does it put on the relatively stupid client, how much on the server, and how much data does it have to exchange to keep the two from forgetting about each other.

Alibaba might not do much to help you in the near future – aside from the often lower-priced stuff it sells as resale rep for thousands of manufacturers in China – but comparing the way it plans to structure apps and how you do it now could help identify bottlenecks in mobile, low-bandwidth client/server smarthphone apps you haven't pinpointed, or figure out how to pry open those you have.

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