Virtual insanity

Microsoft is trying to smother virtualisation technologies before they become mainstream — it must be stopped

Virtualisation is the most exciting and far-reaching technology to emerge in mainstream IT for many years. At a stroke, it decouples operating environment from hardware, bringing a new era in manageability, security and flexibility. It's also the final farewell for the old idea that software is installed in hardware with the irreversibility of a barnacle installed on rock. Bad news for barnacles: good news for us.

Yet that's a farewell Microsoft can't bring itself to make. Its business model relies on changes in hardware triggering changes in software. A new PC means a new copy of Windows. That's not the case with virtual machines: a VM (virtual machine) never wears out or breaks down. It never makes Microsoft any more money. It is therefore bad, and must be stopped.

There is no technical way Microsoft can counter this, so it is forced to resort to ever more arcane licensing conditions. These are already resulting in paradox. Macintosh users are forbidden to run Vista under virtualisation for "security reasons", a condition so Pythonic in its absurdity it's already in its fourth successful month as a major Broadway musical.

The company is equally exercised in the enterprise by the incompatibilities between its old commercial habits and the new technology. It realises, though, that while it might be able to issue threats of excommunication against individual users, its larger customers are less easily controlled.

To that end, the company has said that it is excited by the potential of the technology — presumably, much as the inhabitants of Pompeii were excited by the potential of pyroclastic flow. To show its commitment to openness and industry standards, it has published its own APIs for the virtual machinery in Longhorn Server. It will now welcome full and open discussion with any company that wants to license them on the "level playing fields" of its unilateral licensing conditions.

This sort of thinking is unacceptable — and possibly illegal. By forbidding consumer use and potentially excluding competitive developments in the enterprise, the company is attempting to smother virtualisation in its cot. It is not given to any one company, not even one with pretensions to industry godfatherhood, to exercise this level of control over a basic technology — no matter how threatening.

The company is not being subtle. It does not deserve a subtle response. If it continues, the rest of the industry must cry foul loudly enough to wake up the regulators and the courts. Anti-trust legislation may be a blunt tool, but it's no virtual threat — and Microsoft knows that.

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