Virtual insanity in Redmond

Whoever's writing Microsoft's new license agreements needs to spend some time in a remedial English course. The spin artists of Redmond have issued another "clarification" of their latest restrictions on using Vista with virtual hardware. It's terrible news for a small but influential group of Windows users.

Last week I offered my interpretation of the new licensing terms affecting the use of Windows Vista in virtual hardware.

Microsoft says that's not what they meant at all. They've issued yet another "clarification," telling Gregg Keizer at TechWeb that "Vista Home Basic and Home Premium are not licensed for use in a virtual machine."

According to Keizer, a Microsoft spokesperson told him that only Windows Vista Business and Ultimate editions can be used with virtual hardware. The spokesperson was quoted as saying, "Virtual machines are used primarily by businesses in production settings."

This is part of the latest spin from Redmond, as evidenced by its appearance in a Paul Thurrott article I deconstructed earlier this week. Paul wrote:

Currently, the majority of Microsoft's virtualization users fall into exactly two groups: business customers and enthusiasts. Business customers will want Vista Business and enthusiasts will use Vista Ultimate.

This is either cluelessness or wishful thinking. In fact, I can think of several important groups of Microsoft customers that have perfectly legitimate uses for running multiple editions of Windows in virtual machines:

  • Software developers are among the biggest users of virtual machines. If you're developing a commercial program, you need to test it on all the versions of Windows that your customers are likely to use. In Microsoft's world, those developers are going to need to maintain separate physical machines to perform compatibility testing with home editions of Windows Vista.
  • Security researchers like ZDNet's own Suzi Turner need a controlled environment to do their work. They routinely install spyware and visit dangerous websites to document the atrocities that befall Windows users who click on unsafe links. In Microsoft's world, they're expected to use physical hardware (a terrible idea) or use the expensive Ultimate Edition, which has a different feature set than the home editions that are most likely to be targeted by spyware pushers.
  • Analysts, reviewers, documentation specialists, book authors, and journalists (like me) need to be able to test software in a multitude of environments to see how it performs. Virtual machines are the ideal way to do that. Restoring a backup copy of a virtual machine to perform some tests takes a few seconds. Restoring a physical machine to a base configuration can take a half-hour or more per test.

I've spent years reading and interpreting license agreements, and after I read Keizer's article I went back and reread the Vista license terms. I still don't see how any reasonable person can read the actual license terms and come up with Microsoft's interpretation. Go back and read my article again and tell me that the terms I quote are clear to a reasonable person. In fact, the new agreement is not just poorly written, it's incomprehensible.

In my opinion, there are two huge issues that this licensing brouhaha raises.

One is the need for Microsoft to go back to the agreement and rewrite it in plain English (and then translate it into the other languages they use around the world). As it stands right now, the virtualization terms are vague and do not allow a customer to make an intelligent decision about what rights they're agreeing to.

Even more important is encouraging respect for the license agreement itself. Microsoft does not provide any technical barrier to running the home versions of Vista in a VM. Their restrictions are purely legal and completely arbitrary. People in the three categories I listed above who have legitimate reasons to run a home edition of Vista in a virtual machine may not legally do so, even if they pay for it and comply with every other term of the license agreement. If they follow Microsoft's interpretation of the agreement, Microsoft doesn't get a dollar more, but the customers have to hassle with physical hardware and spend hours doing what could be done in minutes with a virtual machine. That policy is stupid, arrogant, and short-sighted.