Has VMware lost its mojo?

A lack of real innovation points to a company in decline, beset by Sun, Microsoft, and other 'vanquished' rivals

Has EMC's VMware subsidiary lost its mojo? I ask because, all around, I see signs of a company in decline. From applications to desktops to servers, VMware looks less like the innovative contender that pioneered enterprise virtualization and more like a middle-aged has-been going through the motions.

Case in point: desktop virtualization. Time was when VMware owned this category. Its Workstation product defined it, while its ACE initiative gave it street cred in the datacenter. Company marketers would often wax poetic about the advantages of VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) and how virtual appliances were the wave of software distribution's future.

[ InfoWorld's Paul Venezia argues that VDI's future is in doubt due to a perfect storm of trends working against it. | InfoWorld Test Center reviews: Citrix XenDesktop, Microsoft Hyper-V, and VMware VI3. ]

But then came complacency. After vanquishing Microsoft from the market, VMware left Workstation to languish with mostly incremental updates. In the meantime, Microsoft made an end-run around ACE, using its acquisition of Kidaro to drive the development of what would ultimately become MED-V. And as if this wasn't enough, there was the surprise debut of Virtual Windows XP Mode, a technology that would obviate the need for third-party legacy compatibility solutions (like the ones promoted by VMware) by baking a fully functional VM right into the OS.

VMware's response has been to cling to the high ground, retreating further into the ever-shrinking "technical superiority" niche currently occupied by VMotion and other virtualization esoterica. But even on this lofty perch, VMware isn't immune from direct assault. Sun's popular open source VM platform, VirtualBox, is now challenging VMware Workstation with support for more RAM and virtual CPUs per VM, as well as support for Direct 3D acceleration. And commercial competitor Parallels, long a thorn in VMware's side on the Macintosh platform, is going after the company's high-end technical users with its Workstation Extreme product.

All told, it adds up to rough waters ahead for VMware's bread-and-butter desktop virtualization business. And the situation won't get much better anytime soon. A leaked list of new features coming in VMware Workstation 7 shows more incremental improvements but none of the game-changing innovations that helped keep the commodity players at bay. Worse still, the culture of complacency that originated with Workstation is now seeping into other areas of the company's desktop business.

For example, ThinApp, once the darling of the application virtualization space, is now looking a bit long in the tooth. The core product hasn't been updated in nearly a year, and it still doesn't support Windows 7 (both the Setup Capture utility and encoded applications crash hard) or 64-bit applications. By contrast, Microsoft has finally released a 64-bit version of its App-V sequencer, thus beating VMware to market with a solution for virtualizing the upcoming 64-bit version of Office 2010.

To be fair, 64-bit support isn't high on most customer checklists just yet. However, it's the principle that matters. VMware has always positioned itself as the technology pace-setter. For it to now be upstaged by a competitor once considered to be vanquished long ago has to hurt a bit. Playing catch-up may seem like a foreign concept when you're the pioneer, but it's par for the course when you're a market leader in decline.

And that's what I see when I look at VMware: a firm that has lost its confidence, its stride, and its mojo.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.