Beyond virtualization: Why VMware bought AirWatch

It's not mobile management alone -- VMware may be searching for a new direction or keeping competitors like Citrix at bay

From the outside, EMC VMware buying mobile device management outfit AirWatch doesn't seem like much of a fit. What does one of the biggest names in virtualization and cloud computing technology need with an MDM company?

On closer inspection, this may be more about VMware trying to find a new direction to grow in -- one that isn't about a market either being hemmed in rapidly by competition or reaching its saturation point.

That market is mobile, and up until now, VMware has tried and failed to make it into a substantial part of its business. That being the case, it's perhaps better to go with a company that focuses on mobile exclusively and make use of what it has to offer. VMware's Sanjay Poonen admitted in his blog post on the acquisition that "our End-User Computing portfolio has very little overlap with AirWatch. As such, AirWatch will become the focal point for all of VMware's mobile development activities."

VMware's previous dabbling in mobile involved its Mobile Virtualization Platform product, which allowed Android smartphones to be partitioned into work and personal facets, but the concept made little headway. VMware's solution had to be preloaded into the phone by the manufacturer -- always a poor way to encourage uptake -- and the "two phones in one" approach to device security didn't catch on in general for users or IT managers.

Why AirWatch specifically? Possibly because it's a company that wants to be about a lot more than "lock and wipe," as AirWatch CEO John Marshall himself said earlier this year. MDM, in Marshall's estimation, also needs to involve more than just protecting one resource like email or file sharing to encompassing more trickier scenarios like protecting the movement of data through corporate apps developed in-house.

It helps that AirWatch is one of the very few MDM vendors out there that actually matters, along with folks like MobileIron and Good Technology. With about 100 companies in this space all struggling to differentiate themselves, very few have risen to the top. There's space for "probably ... three or four strong players" in the MDM market, as Marshall put it. "Nobody wants to buy security from the fifth- or seventh- or 20th-best company in the space."

Another possible reason for VMware picking AirWatch: It's an indirect swipe at one of VMware's competitors in this space, namely Citrix Systems. The latter company had its own rash of MDM acquisitions, including snapping up Framehawk, creators of a performance-boosting technology for remote access applications, earlier this month and picking up MDM maker Zenprise at the end of 2012. Both VMware and Citrix rolled out new mobile device management tools early in 2013, with VMware offering VMware Horizon Suite and Citrix offering its XenMobile MDM product.

For further perspective, I spoke with Eric Chiu, president of HyTrust, a security provider for VMware products, and he noted many of the same points: "Where VMware has traditionally focused on access to virtual desktop through mobile devices, AirWatch enables management and security of the mobile endpoints themselves. This is a great response to Citrix's acquisition of Zenprise a year ago, and it enables VMware to be a major player in mobile computing."

That all depends on how well the two companies integrate their offerings. We're still way too early in the whole cycle to know how VMware and AirWatch plan to have their respective product portfolios live and work side by side. But one thing VMware clearly wants to have by way of AirWatch, if possible, is a future in the mobile market that's so far remained out of its reach.

This story, "Beyond virtualization: Why VMware bought AirWatch," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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