This is the year of the desktop all right. Analysts have been calling it that for some time and there's evidence that companies are looking to the technology. But what has really concentrated minds is the efforts that vendors are putting in to capture the hearts of minds of their customers.

Microsoft's recent moves have left little doubt that it's where the next big fight is going to be. And this isn't going to be a little spat - this is a full-blown, outside-the-public-bar dust-up.

Microsoft certainly hasn't pulled its punches in its fight with VMware. It's overhauled its desktop virtualisation offering, introducing several new technologies; it's announced further close ties with Citrix and it's radically reshaped its licensing structure.

One of the key elements of the Microsoft initiative is its attempt to snap up VMware customers. The company has launched a Rescue for VMware VDI which allows companies to trade in unused VMware licences (up to 500 of them) and, even more attractively, has introduced a VDI Kick Start promotion, which offers a 50 percent on the normal retail price.

The deal with Citrix could be even more crucial: Citrix, which has a long-standing partnership with Microsoft, has a strong presence on the desktop, its HDX technology being particularly attractive to those companies who have to handle high-speed graphics on their machines. Now Microsoft is looking to build on that expertise: the company is looking to introduce some new features, Microsoft Dynamic Memory to allow customers to adjust memory of a guest virtual machine on while RemoteFX will deliver multimedia capabilities. It's the latter that's more interesting as it's this that builds on Citrix's HDX to offer a real alternative to VMware's use of Teradici's PC-over-IP protocol.

Any way that you look at, Microsoft's slice of announcements is a massive statement of intent.

.I chatted to Patrick O'Rourke, director of marketing communications in Microsoft's server and tools division about the initiatives. And he agreed that licensing was a big issue and that the virtualisation vendors had been slow to react to the new demands. "Licensing has to change to catch up with virtualisation, that's why we're simplifying it to make it much more flexible."And the grab for VMware's business makes sound business sense, Microsoft's O'Rourke points out that as a result of VMware's business model, there's plenty of room to claw back some business. "VMware has been seeding free licences of VMview. We hear from end user and analysts that there are a lot of licences that are sitting on shelves unused. Those companies are going to respond to this offer because we know they're looking at moving to Windows 7."

Whether the changes that Microsoft have made are going to be enough are an interesting point. Analyst Mark Bowker of Enterprise Strategy Group says "Microsoft has some good progress. Licensing is always an important factor when deploying to thousands or even tens of thousands of endpoints. One licence for multiple endpoints is good to see as is including desktop access rights under Windows Client Software Assurance."

We're talking some big numbers here. While VMware has got its hands on the enterprise server space and shows little chance of being bested there, the desktop virtualisation market is up for grabs. And it's a big space, ESG's Bowker points out that while it's not top of most enterprise's wish list, 18 percent of enterprises have said that it's a top priority this year - if Microsoft's initiative puts them at the top of the pile, it's going to be worth it.

And Microsoft starts off with a huge advantage: as O'Rourke says, "after all these years, Microsoft knows the desktop user and how each different user has different needs."

Companies who do take the plunge into desktop virtualisation will find lots attractive about the Microsoft initiative. It's a company with the pedigree in the desktop space; it now offers attractive licensing, while the new agreement with Citrix will improve the technical capability of its desktop virtualisation product.

It's going to be interesting to see how VMware responds to this. The company has been secure in the knowledge that Microsoft has some catching up to do - and Microsoft still has some catching up to do, despite these announcements - but Microsoft with its strength in an entrenched market place and with a cost advantage is going to be an obdurate opponent. And enterprises will certainly welcome the fact that there are going to be plenty of players in town: that will improve both cost and technology. Desktop virtualisation has become even more interesting.

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