VMware has moved to strengthen its credentials in the desktop virtualisation market today, with the release of two new products. The company has launched VMware Player 2, which includes beefed-up support for modern hardware and is available free, and VMware Fusion for Mac - which isn't free, but does allow Windows applications to integrate with the Mac desktop.

VMware Player 2 allows you to run 32- and 64-bit applications and operating system environments distributed as a virtual appliance, using under either Windows or Linux as the host OS.

Virtual appliances are pre-built, pre-configured and ready-to-run software applications packaged along with an operating system in a virtual machine. You'll need paid-for software such as a copy of VMware Workstation or Server to create a virtual appliance, however. Alternatively, more than 460 virtual appliances are available for download from the VMware site.

New features in Player include:

  • Experimental support for two-way Virtual SMP, which allows multiple virtual machines to each use more than one CPU - useful for high-performance applications.

  • Expanded operating system support, including Windows Vista, although the Player won't run the Aero UI. It also supports over 60 32- and 64-bit guest and host OSes, according to VMware. They include NetWare, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, Solaris x86, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, and Ubuntu.

  • New virtual appliance interface, which VMware calls a "home page" that streamlines access to virtual appliances by enabling users to browse its site for virtual appliances and their descriptions.

  • Simpler data sharing between virtual machines and the host using shared folders or by dragging and dropping files between the virtual and host machines.

"Virtual appliances are fundamentally changing the way software is packaged and distributed, enabling ISVs to develop self-contained and optimised application stacks for production and evaluation use," said VMware VP Dan Chu. "VMware Player is a key component of VMware’s desktop vision, helping to provide end users with flexibility and security on their virtualised desktops."

VMware Player 2 is free of charge and available for download here.

VMware Fusion enables Mac users to run Mac, Windows, Linux, NetWare and Solaris-based applications simultaneously without rebooting, which puts it in head-on competition with the recently released Parallels Desktop for Mac 3.0. However, VMware Fusion won't be generally available for a couple of months.

VMware Fusion features Unity, a technology that puts Windows panes onto the Mac desktop. It means you can run Windows applications on an Intel-based Mac without using the Windows desktop or other furniture. Instead, you launch and switch between Windows applications using a special launcher. It also features copying and pasting between Windows and Mac applications.

Key features of VMware Fusion include:

  • Automatic Boot Camp integration, which means existing installations are detected to allow Mac OS X to run alongside Windows XP or Vista with no additional setup.

  • Accelerated 3D graphics support, which enables users to run DirectX 8.1 applications and play select DirectX 8.1 games from within Windows XP virtual machines. It doesn't support the Vista Aero interface however.

  • Hardware support includes Virtual SMP to use dual-core and dual-processor computers and 64-bit operating systems, as well as the maximum memory available on Mac Pro and Xserve computers.

  • USB 2.0 support, for high-speed hardware applications.

  • Snapshot/backup, so users can capture and save the current state of a running virtual machine. This enables them to roll back to a previous state if the virtual machine becomes unresponsive.

  • Users can run VMware's free Converter on existing Windows PCs to migrate the environment into a virtual machine ready for use on the Mac.

  • Users can run virtual machines created with VMware Server, Infrastructure 3 and Workstation with Fusion.

  • Convenience, including battery pass-through, which allows users to monitor the battery life of their Macs from within non-Mac virtual machines; Mac SuperDrive with read-write support for CDs and DVDs in any non-Mac virtual machine; Windows shares the Mac’s network connections and switches between wired and AirPort/Wi-Fi connections; and users can simultaneously view their Macs on a separate monitor from another virtual machine.

European marketing manager Richard Gartshagen said that VMware's Mac integration was better than that of Parallels because his company's technology is more mature, and VMware has more virtualisation experience.

"Parallels released v3 very quickly and there was no beta version," he said. "What does that mean for quality? We want to be sure our software is rock-solid rather than firing releases out there. Our product will be on par if not better [than the Parallels product]."

"VMware Fusion enables Mac users to use their preferred computing platform to run Windows and other PC-based applications within fast and secure virtual machines," said Chu. "With more than 200,000 downloads of VMware Fusion since the public beta became available earlier this year, Mac users are rapidly adopting the industry-leading VMware virtualisation platform used by millions worldwide."

"Apple is excited to have VMware bring its proven virtualisation technology to the Mac," said Apple VP Ron Okamoto. "VMware has distinguished VMware Fusion by leveraging Apple technology including OpenGL and Cocoa frameworks to develop the product, which has enabled VMware to offer the power and ease of use that Mac users expect."

VMware has made a video of the system at work, available here.