Virtualizing Android - the perfect consumer/workplace smartphone marriage

LG and VMWare are teaming up to virtualize Android on smartphones - possibly solving the personal/professional smartphone dilemma for users and employers.

The increasing growth of smartphone (and now tablet) use by consumers has been both a gift and a curse to employers.

It's a gift in that workers are buying their own smartphones and often using them for professional tasks and projects. That improves connectivity on the road and at home as well as over productivity at no extra cost (since the employer doesn't have to spring for the smartphone or service). It even means that some employees are giving up company-provided devices for their own simply because they like an iPhone or Android phone more than their BlackBerry or outdated Windows Mobile phone – which reduces cost even further. This has all led to BYOD (bring your own device) policies in a lot of workplaces (sometimes officially stated, sometimes by tacit agreement).

For employees, of course, it’s a big win. You get to pick the device, the carrier that works best at home, on the road, and in the office. You also get to use that device for personal email, texts, home related to-do list, music and video, and to run any number of apps for either personal use or for work tasks. Depending on your employer you might even get reimbursed for some of the cost (or be able to write some of the bill off your next tax return).

It's a headache, however, because with the increasing diversity of smartphones makes it much harder for IT departments to control what corporate data is on mobile devices that could be lost, stolen, or compromised by malware. When employers were providing devices like BlackBerries, it was easy for IT to regulate security policies about encryption, access to data and resources, set approved (and secured) app choices, security-related functions like VPN and public Wi-Fi, and to instantly wipe a lost/stolen device.

For many companies, there has been no good solution to trying to marry the advantages of employee-owned devices with the need to control and secure either the entire device or confidential work-related information on it. A number of companies have tried to provide employers with management solutions and have had some success in doing so.

Even so, if you're an employee bringing your Droid Incredible into the office and using it to help you get your job done more efficiently and effectively, it isn't going to seem fair for your employer to limit access to features and apps, internal resources, or to allow remote monitoring of your personal smartphone.

LG and VMWare are teaming up to offer what might be the ideal solution for Android phones – virtualized smartphone operating systems. Most users know virtualization as a way to run two different computer operating systems on one system (usually simultaneously) such as Windows 7 and Linux or Mac OS X. The same concept can be used for smartphone, however.

In this case, an LG phone owned by an employee would be outfitted with whatever apps and settings he or she wants. Games, access to public Wi-Fi, personal email accounts, text messaging to the kids, and so on. However, a second complete Android configuration for work could be setup (business apps, internal network security settings, VPN access, confidential data, even a separate phone number) that the user can use either in the office or at home. This second configuration would live inside an app that is secured so that it is inaccessible if that app isn't running, the user, someone who's stolen the phone, and even the external "real" Android OS can't access its data or features.

This scenario is pretty easy to achieve in and PC world and VMWare is a leader in virtualization technology for both consumers (such as the VMWare Fusion product that let's Mac users run Windows alongside their Mac apps) and enterprise (where the technology is applied to servers to add security, improve performance, and reduce costs).

The concept could, quite frankly, be an ideal solution for both users and employers. It might not replace the various smartphone management solutions, but it could easily work with them and create a very secure and yet employee-friendly option.

Ironically, LG and VMWare are choosing to pioneer this concept with Android, which is popular with consumers but which many IT departments are hesitant to work with because of enterprise security concerns. The companies have stated that they may more to other platforms is demand exists, though as smartphone platforms aren't open source in nature the way Android is, this might not be an easy sell to the folks at RIM, Apple, or Microsoft (though these companies could probably develop similar features if they choose). This could eve give Android an interesting competitive advantage in some workplaces.

Whether VMWare will extend this concept to other manufacturers as well as other platforms isn't so certain. Certainly, it gives LG a significant advantage over other Android vendors if they can maintain an exclusive relationship.

What do you think? Are you willing to use your smartphone in the workplace? If so, how willing are you to submit to corporate control or monitoring of it? Would this make you switch to Android or an LG handset? Let us know in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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