Microsoft's decision to allow Home versions of Vista to run inside virtual machines may have far-reaching benefits in the coming years.
The initial market for such virtual Vista machines is likely to be among Mac users looking to run Windows or within the ranks of hard-core PC enthusiasts. But the move could also benefit the average PC user who just wants a machine that's easier to use, says Woody Hobbs, CEO of Phoenix Technologies, a leading maker of the BIOS (basic input/output system) software that loads before a PC boots up.
Phoenix has been working on HyperSpace, a technology that allows for a range of software from embedded Web browsers to media players to security programs, to run outside the main operating system. The company has been working to bring HyperSpace to market this year, but because the technology relies on virtualizing some components of the PC, Hobbs said, it was hampered by Microsoft's licensing rules, which limited Vista virtualization to the two priciest versions of the operating system. Virtualization allows a computer to run a single version of an operating system but seem to be running multiple copies.
"We'd like to think they are accommodating us but, nevertheless, we are happy with the change," Hobbs said in a telephone interview on Monday.
Hobbs said Microsoft could benefit too, given the fact that he feels Windows has been losing share to the Mac because consumers believe Apple's machines are simpler to run and manage.
Microsoft's change on the licensing front, Hobbs said, opens the door for significant changes to the PC landscape, such as having security software that can run before and after Windows runs, as well as a machine that can boot instantly for simple tasks such as DVD playback, while simultaneously running Windows. Some machines have a "fast boot" Linux option today, but the machine has to restart to boot into Windows, meaning that users can't easily switch back to the DVD and keep their place in the movie.
"It really makes it a much more intuitive usage model and starts to make the PC a little more friendly, a la the Mac," he said.
Phoenix announced the HyperSpace technology in November, but expects it will take until at least the back-to-school season before the first machines hit U.S. shelves, and probably the holidays before machines start to make sophisticated use of the non-Windows space for things such as Web browsing or e-mail.
The licensing change for Vista has been a long time coming. Microsoft was criticized before Vista's launch for its limitations, which allowed only the Ultimate and Business editions to run as guest operating systems within a virtual machine. In June, Microsoft briefed reporters that it would ease the restrictions, but pulled back at the last minute for unspecified reasons.
Parallels, which makes software that lets Windows run on a Mac and is among those that stands to gain most immediately from the decision, praised the move.
"We're glad to see that Microsoft is taking steps to increase the pace of the adoption of virtualization," Parallels' Benjamin Rudolph said in an e-mail interview. "This shows that Microsoft is committed to the virtualization market, and we think that this opens new opportunities for us to partner."
Rudolph, too, suggested that the change might help boost Windows' fortunes among those otherwise inclined.
"This move is a good thing for those computer users who aren't Microsoft customers (like Mac and Linux users) since they now have a cost-effective way to access Windows and its massive software library," he said, noting that Microsoft now has a shot at the 6 percent of desktops not running its operating system today. "This is a great way for Microsoft to effectively reach 100 percent of the desktop market."