VMware's recent missile launched across Microsoft's bows, in the form of a white paper complaining about Microsoft's new licensing conditions, will gladden the hearts of thousands -- if not millions -- of Microsoft-haters everywhere. But it's probably not the right thing to have done.
In a white paper uploaded to the company's site this week, VMware outlined seven specific instances of anti-competitive behaviour by Microsoft, activated mainly via its software licensing conditions. These include restriction of support for virtualised products, restrictions on running Microsoft virtual machines (VMs) on third-party virtualisation software, restrictions on the mobility of VMs, prohibitions on desktop virtualisation and secrecy around virtualisation specifications.
VMware complains that Microsoft doesn't have the kinds of technology that VMware does -- and VMware is making a tidy packet out its technology -- and that Redmond wants to deny it to customers by forcing its APIs and specifications onto the rest of the industry.
At the heart of the argument, said the VMware publication, is the way that Microsoft wants to force customers to use Microsoft's underpinnings for Windows, whether in the shape of Virtual PC or its upcoming Virtual Server product.
And of course, VMware is substantially correct. Not only do we have Microsoft's previous behaviour over the last 30 years as a guideline to the ferocity of its aggressiveness, we also have CEO Steve Ballmer's recent statement that Microsoft wants to own the hypervisor layer. "Everybody in the operating system business wants to be the guy on the bottom," he said.
In other words, Microsoft feels that Windows is undermined -- quite literally -- by products such as VMware's, especially since the company's technology has become so hugely popular over the last three years.
Microsoft's response has been to use the weapons at its disposal. However, those weapons are far more sophisticated now than they were back in the mid-1990s when its undermining of Netscape -- which had the temerity to introduce a new and more fully-featured Web browser into the marketplace -- was reined in only by court action. Microsoft was subsequently penalised for anti-competitive behaviour.
This time, Microsoft has shuffled around the lawyerly words in its software licences to ensure that the conditions under which you load its software into a virtual machine are more restrictive than before -- unless its a Microsoft-created VM, of course.
But all that said, you have to wonder what VMware hopes to achieve with this latest tirade, the second in recent months. The company's sales hit £709 million in 2006, so it's hardly the downtrodden underdog -- not yet anyway, as Microsoft has yet to deliver a credible alternative to VMware ESX Server.
Redmond is beavering away however, as most will be aware, and has brought forward the date when its Windows Server Virtualisation is expected to burst onto the market to early 2008, with Virtual Machine Manager arriving later this year.
Meanwhile, VMware is king of the heap by a long way with an estimated 80 per cent market share. And it's cemented its position with a range of initiatives, such as open APIs and disk formats.
However, it doesn't own an operating system as Microsoft of course does. And since Microsoft's stated aim is to include virtualisation in the OS, of which it will no doubt ship millions, then VMware is right be afraid.
VMware's complaints come across as self-serving however. The company's grown organically by developing software products that people want to buy, not by whinging about how its competitors are doing stuff that limit its market.
That's capitalism. And you can expect Microsoft to be as aggressive as it can -- while, one hopes, remaining within the law -- and to use all the weapons it has available.
So to complain when it does it that smacks of disingenuousness. What did VMware expect when it started prodding the grizzly bear -- one that's known for its voraciousness -- all those years ago? That it would turn over and go to sleep?
It seems likely that VMware co-founders Diane Greene and Mendel Rosenblum -- who are among the nicest people in this business that I've met during 20 years of reporting on it -- will have thought long and hard about whether issuing this white paper was the right thing to do. The size and success of their fairly new company suggests that they're not generally in the business of making poor decisions. But issuing this kind of statement probably wasn't one of their best -- not when you're making fast-selling technology for large amounts of money.
Just what are customers supposed to make of it? Will it help with buying decisions? It might even delay them, as potential buyers reconsider whether the advent of Microsoft might open up the shortlist.
If VMware has an issue with Microsoft's actions, it should say so via its lawyers and let the courts decide whether Redmond is overstepping the mark. Other than that, just let the software doing the talking.