App-V 4.6: Too little, too late?

The great Vista debacle claims another victim: Microsoft's App-V virtualization promise

Stop the presses! Microsoft, that bastion of missed opportunities and marketing blunders, has finally announced an updated road map for App-V. Version 4.6, which is slated to appear as a new TAP (Technical Adopter Program) option on Microsoft Connect by April, brings Windows 7 compatibility and 64-bit client support to the company's much-maligned application virtualization platform.

Actually, you can get the Windows 7 support today in App-V 4.5 by downloading a recently announced compatibility patch. However, given the delay in producing both the patch and the forthcoming 64-bit support, I can't help but wonder if it isn't too little too late. While Microsoft was fiddling away deciding just what to do with App-V (and how it might fit into its hodgepodge of virtualization technologies that include Hyper-V and MED-V), its competitors were refining their offerings and, in many cases, leapfrogging the company on the technology front.

[ Related: APP-V, MED-V, and missed opportunities ]

It didn't have to be this way. When Microsoft acquired Softricity nearly three years ago, it inherited an application virtualization platform -- SoftGrid -- that was without equal. Competing technologies from Altiris and Thinstall were incomplete and lacked the strong back-end support that made SoftGrid so attractive.

At the time, I felt Microsoft had made a brilliant play, that the innovative SoftGrid virtualization technology would give the company a much-needed legacy emulation option and allow the Windows development team to finally break with the past in favor of a managed-code future.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to API nirvana: Windows Vista bombed. In the resulting panic, Microsoft seemingly forgot all about its application virtualization diamond in the rough, instead focusing on righting the listing Vista ship with Service Pack 1, and then later abandoning its sinking carcass in favor of the quick-fix follow-on now known as Windows 7.

As we've all learned by now, Windows 7 is simply a tweaked Vista. The application runtime model and API support mechanisms remain essentially unchanged. In fact, there's nothing radically new under the hood, which I'm guessing wasn't the original plan. Rather, integrating application virtualization into the OS and providing at least the option of running a cleaner core software stack was no doubt in the cards for Windows 7. However, expediency ultimately trumped purity, and the resulting Vista successor is now just a shadow of what it might have been (shades of the infamous "Longhorn reset").

Of course, now that Windows 7 is fully baked, the company is finally turning its attention back to App-V. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the competition has not been idle. While the Redmondians ignored App-V and left it to twist in proverbial wind, Microsoft's archrivals saw a chance to close the technology gap by scooping up some of Softricity's original competitors and filling out their feature sets with complementary products.

So instead of dominating a product segment by being first to market with a pioneering solution, Microsoft is now being forced to assume its traditional role of Johnny come lately, playing catch-up to an array of formidable technology leaders: VMware (ThinApp), Citrix (XenApp), and Novell (via its XenoCode OEM agreement).

To be sure, Microsoft can still salvage App-V, perhaps by integrating it more tightly with Windows 7 or 8 and thus creating a de facto standard for its packaging and deployment architecture. However, such an afterthought strategy will never attain the level of seamlessness and perceived technology leadership that an aggressive Windows 7 integration strategy would have provided.