Do it for the users, Microsoft

Microsoft's consumer virtualisation strategy is in public disarray. Doing the right thing will help

Virtualisation is a well-fashioned lie. You might think you're using a certain lump of hardware; indeed, in the ideal virtual system, every test you can think of should confirm that. The truth is otherwise. Deep within the system, technology is diligently working to preserve that illusion while simultaneously implementing a very different reality. It's like a flight simulator, with the distinct advantage that you still get to your destination after a couple of hours in the virtual cockpit.

Like many illusions, this can be very useful. Yet there is no such thing as an ideal virtual system: something somewhere usually slips through, a condition that isn't met or a fault that isn't anticipated, and suddenly you realise you're not at 38,000 feet but in a small box on stilts in a shed in Slough.

There are interesting parallels with Microsoft's virtualisation policy. The company thinks virtualisation is a good thing: it is investing heavily in the technology and designing products to take advantage of it. Yet that approval vanishes at the consumer level: if you're not going to pony up an extra few quid for the Vista business versions, the company will not let you run its operating system in a virtual environment. The stated reason, that virtualisation opens up new security problems which consumers cannot handle, cuts little ice: how does spending the extra money change this? If there's a security problem, shouldn't Microsoft fix it?

Suddenly, fault lines appeared. The company was within a whisker of changing that policy — indeed, had started to brief to that effect — and then changed its mind. The difference between the public face of Microsoft and the realities underneath jarred into focus. The omnicompetent, supremely slick company is really in a mither of indecision.

What Microsoft cannot say, without breaking its virtual image altogether, is the real reason for this incoherence: money. A substantial part of the company's revenue stream comes from the close coupling of its software with the hardware beneath: in general, when you buy a new computer, it comes with a new version of the operating system. It's hard to move the old one across, especially with all those apps and data. With virtualisation, however, it's trivial — a virtual machine never breaks or becomes outdated; it just runs better when the underlying hardware is improved.

This is great for users. With their original investment in the operating system protected and a new freedom to upgrade hardware independently of software, life is much nicer. Microsoft knows this and in large part agrees: these are unanswerable arguments. And the company cannot publicly complain if advances in IT improve efficiency. Yet money saved by the punter is money not collected by the company: this is real money, core revenue feeding the heart of the machine. That hurts, and instinct tells Microsoft to protect it. The internal battles, by all accounts, have been lengthy and spectacular; now they're spilling out into the open.

Enough harm has been done. It's time for Microsoft to say the user comes first, and mean it.