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Why Symantec bought Appstream (not)

It's all too clear why Symantec is acquiring Appstream. But just imagine for a moment the company had a wider vision that could really challenge Microsoft's desktop dominance ...
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Written by Phil Wainewright on

Of course we all know the real reason why Symantec is acquiring AppStream — a move announced yesterday at its user conference in Las Vegas. Virtualization is hot and Symantec is big in systems management. AppStream helps round out its offerings for packaging and streaming virtualized software. It's as simple as that.

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Just for a moment, though, let's imagine Symantec is following a much broader vision — one that positions it to wrest control of the on-demand desktop from right under Microsoft's nose. I know this is the stuff of fantasy — it could only happen if Symantec were serious about SaaS. Sadly, Symantec's track record on this score is lamentable.

A year ago at SaaScon 2007, the company proudly unveiled its overarching strategy for capturing the SMB market for SaaS with the announcement of ... an online backup service. For a moment there, I thought I'd been transported back to 1998 and the early days of application service providers. There was talk at the time, admittedly, of this being just the first in a portfolio of SaaS offerings, and indeed, the range today also includes online archiving. But at a dollar-a-month per GB — more than six times the price of storage at Amazon S3 — it's hardly going to set the world on fire.

It would be much more exciting to round out the offering with, say, pay-as-you-go hosted Microsoft Office, delivered as a service for a low monthly subscription. An Appstream partner in the UK, Fasthosts, introduced such a service in February and, despite some initial squeals of protest from Microsoft, is still selling it today — with a bargain-basement starting price of £5 (around $10) per user per month.

Granted, such offerings still reek of ASP-dom, even though it would spark a few interesting headlines were a company the size of Symantec were to start offering MS Office on the same model as Fasthosts' more limited experiment. But where this desktop streaming capability becomes especially strategic is the potential to deliver any client-side application as a cloud-managed service. I discussed this upside when I first wrote about AppStream last March:

"... solutions like AppStream could become a saving grace for the future of SaaS in which ever-richer functionality, as well as cached data, is downloaded and stored on the client. So long as it's managed from the network and the user doesn't have to tangle with the technology, that seems like a neat compromise to me. Indeed, it could even mean that I could log into and use any PC or other device wherever in the world I sat down in front of one, and I could have my apps and data streamed down to me just for that session."

This kind of serviced client concept is one that I first ascribed to Symantec back in early 2006 when it unveiled plans for a product codenamed Genesis — and which at the time I felt would help position it to battle Microsoft for control of the on-demand desktop. In its final guise as Norton 360, however, Genesis hasn't lived up to its early billing as a fully on-demand offering.

Indeed, it's clear from looking back over the past couple of years that Symantec has consistently dropped the ball on SaaS. That's why I'm confident its acquisition of Appstream — despite the undoubted potential — won't in the end have any great impact on the SaaS world, either.

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