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VMware finally has the assets needed to compete in the mobility market, but still faces an uphill battle.
The recent shakeup in its end-user computing (EUC) division, followed by the $1.5 billion acquisition of AirWatch, put VMware Inc. on the right enterprise mobility management (EMM) track, observers said. The virtualization company's push into mobility has had many fits and starts, however, and its desktop virtualization legacy could get in the way.
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Pushing virtualization would be a mistake.
mobile IT professional
"VMware's aiming in the right direction," said Brian Knudtson, lead design architect at OneNeck IT Solutions, a services provider based in Phoenix. "Their mobile strategy up to this point -- I would say it's a little weak."
VMware EUC struggles vs. Citrix
AirWatch is the biggest acquisition in VMware's history -- a sign the company is dedicated to overcoming its mobile struggles.
VMware started talking about mobile virtualization, which creates separate personal and business operating systems on one device, in 2008, but didn't release an actual product for more than four years -- and then, only for Google Inc.'s Android.
Meanwhile, the company abandoned its plans for mobile virtualization on Apple Inc.'s iOS devices, opting instead to release secure app containers in its Horizon Suite product, which combines EMM, desktop virtualization and cloud file sharing. Shortly after that product's 2013 launch, however, Apple built its own container-like technology directly into iOS 7, which sent VMware back to the drawing board yet again.
"What they had wasn't allowing them to compete," said Brian Katz, head of mobile innovation at a major pharmaceutical manufacturer in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Citrix -- VMware's desktop and application virtualization rival -- acquired mobile device management vendor Zenprise in December 2012 and released an EMM suite called XenMobile six months later.
"Citrix took the lead there, and it's a pretty commanding lead," Knudtson said. "Citrix realized the potential and executed on it. … It's about applications, not desktops, and that's where Citrix was already leading VMware."
AirWatch will operate as its own group within VMware's EUC division, with AirWatch CEO John Marshall at the helm. That structure will allow AirWatch to take the lead on VMware's EMM strategy, integrating pieces of Horizon as needed.
"They have to be careful that they don't fully integrate it and start pushing virtualization," Katz said. "That would be a mistake."
VMware desktop virtualization has a role, but…
Most mobility experts agree that desktop virtualization is not the best way to deliver and manage corporate applications on smartphones and tablets.
Software built for a mouse and keyboard doesn't translate well to touchscreen devices, and native apps can take advantage of mobile devices' unique features in ways that Windows apps can't. Plus, if an organization doesn't already use desktop virtualization, building out a virtual desktop infrastructure to support mobility can get expensive and complex.
There have been some improvements in this area, however. VMware's Unity Touch, which is part of Horizon Suite, aims to make virtualized Windows apps more touchscreen-friendly. And Desktop as a Service, which came into the VMware fold through the Desktone acquisition in October, can make virtual desktops easier and cheaper to deploy through the cloud.
Mobile desktop virtualization also comes in handy when an end user needs to quickly access a corporate application or document on the go or as a placeholder while an organization rolls out a more user-friendly EMM product. Most of these options offer native mobile email, Web browsers and other apps.
But if a user has to log on to a desktop to access those apps, "I don't think that's the right approach," Knudtson said.
New VMware EUC leadership takes over
VMware's EUC sales grew by almost 30% year over year in the fourth quarter of 2013, but the company didn't disclose how much of that growth came from its mobility products versus its traditional desktop virtualization business.
A new executive team will be responsible for the ultimate success or failure of VMware's mobility strategy. The leader is Sanjay Poonen, executive vice president and general manager of the EUC division, who joined the company in August after seven years at SAP. In January, VMware replaced the division's longtime chief technology officer, Scott Davis, with an up-and-coming architect from the infrastructure side of the house, Kit Colbert. (Davis remains as an advisor.)
"Only a few weeks after [Poonen] was hired, he made his vision very clear to me, and it was larger than desktop," Gunnar Berger, research director at Gartner Inc., said. "AirWatch is the proof … that what he talked to me about in those first few weeks was what he had in mind."
But when VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger weighed in on the AirWatch acquisition, his comments were decidedly desktop-centric.
"Clearly, now customers want to have their PC experience and their PC applications to be available on mobile devices," Gelsinger told Dow Jones Business News.
Fortunately for VMware, Poonen and AirWatch's Marshall understand that the PC experience on mobile devices is not yet up to snuff, Katz said.
"That's one of the advantages of bringing the new blood in," he said.