Desktops to get OS freedom of choice

Startup VMWare is developing software that lets users switch among operating systems.

To many people, the computer screen of Cornell University freshman C. Chris Erway is a confusing jumble. But there is a new kind of freedom in the chaos, thanks to start-up VMWare Inc.

On any given day, Erway's monitor might display a mish-mash of different software: perhaps a graphics program and Microsoft Word and a C++ programming tool.

While all PCs can run many programs at once, Erway is the talk of his dormitory because his programs were written for several different operating systems, including Microsoft Corp.'s (Nasdaq:MSFT) Windows and the grassroots hit Linux.

Ordinarily, PC users are stuck using a single operating system, such as Windows. Erway, though, can switch back and forth among several of them. That's because he is using a test version of VMWare, a program that is a hot topic in Silicon Valley even before it has been officially released.

The closely held Palo Alto, Calif., company, founded in 1997 by researchers from Stanford University, developed software that allows computers based on Intel Corp.'s chips to simultaneously run Linux, Windows 95 and Windows NT, plus others VMWare may support later.

Who would want to do such a thing? Ask Erway. "I know a ton of kids who want to use Linux, but who still want to play games or use Windows applications like Word or Quicken," he said.

Changing OS
Hence the buzz: With VMWare, users can move between operating systems as casually as they now move between application programs. As a result, some industry executives see VMWare as enabling the kind of free choice of operating systems that will ease the grip that Microsoft has on PC software.

VMWare, which shipped a test version of the product last week, expects it will eventually work with IBM Corp.'s (NYSE:IBM) OS/2 operating system, Solaris from Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq:SUNW) and software from start-up Be Inc. (It won't support Apple Computer Inc.'s (Nasdaq:AAPL) Macintosh system, unless Apple rewrites its software to run on Intel chips.)

"VMWare is quite remarkable," said Jean-Louis Gassee, Be's founder. "They are really clever guys."

The "guys" are co-founders Mendel Rosenblum, a Stanford computer-science professor, and two of his graduate students, Edouard Bugnion and Scott Devine, along with Edward Wang, from the University of California, Berkeley. VMWare's president is Diane Greene, who is also Rosenblum's wife.

VMWare's technology is sometimes confused with "software emulation," an unrelated technique that allows, say, a Linux-based computer to run programs written for a Windows machine without actually using any Windows software. In the case of VMWare, though, PC owners have versions of all of the operating systems they want to run installed on their machines. That approach guarantees complete compatibility, and reduces the slowdowns typical with emulation software. VMWare says its software runs application programs at 90% of their normal speed.

Multiple sessions
The approach has other advantages. Besides different operating systems, a user can run multiple "sessions" of the same operating system simultaneously. For example, one session of Windows NT could serve up Web pages on the Internet, while another session with confidential information could remain completely fenced-off behind a "firewall" from external users. There also are reliability advantages: if Windows 95 crashes, it doesn't necessarily interrupt other operating systems or require the computer to be restarted.

VMWare, now with just two dozen employees, plans to do most of its selling over the Internet, or through group licenses to big companies. It remains to be seen whether they will find much success outside the technical community. But VMWare expects to see early demand from other software developers, and users at corporate "help desks" that want to be able to mimic the operation of machines they are trying to diagnose.

Greene was one of the co-founders of VXtreme, an Internet video company that was purchased by Microsoft in 1997 for an estimated $75 million. She plowed some proceeds from that deal into VMWare -- ironically, using Microsoft's money to back a product that could be something of a threat.

But she and other VMWare executives insist they aren't hostile to the software giant; they argue their product could actually lead to loading more copies of Microsoft operating systems and applications on personal computers and servers. A week before announcing the company, VMWare executives gave a courtesy briefing at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash.

While Linux fans are some of VMWare's biggest early boosters, many of them grumble about the proposed $299 price for the final versions, due out in May and June. Ms. Greene, admitting that the company had the corporate market in mind, noted that a $99 student version has been announced, and said that consumer prices may follow.

Erway, meanwhile, was so excited that that he set up a Web page with screen shots of his VMWare installation. In the first week it was up, he said he got more than 1,000 hits from inquiring minds at IBM, 900 from Intel-and 300 from Microsoft.


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