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IT pros fume over Microsoft's rules against IE virtualization

Microsoft prohibits virtualizing Internet Explorer, but is the company reading its own application virtualization rules correctly?

Despite pressure from customers and partners, Microsoft forbids the use of application virtualization tools with Internet Explorer. Meanwhile, IT departments continue to do just that without Microsoft's blessing, because it is the fastest way to overcome the application-compatibility problems that come up in Windows 7 rollouts.

Customers aren't trying to take revenue away from Microsoft; they want to move to the next version of Windows, and [application virtualization] gives them a way.

Mark Margevicius
Gartner Inc. analyst

Some IT pros, such as Jacob White, a Web designer at a global footwear company, find Microsoft's regulations crippling. White has used Seattle-based Spoon's IE streaming feature to test and develop applications until Microsoft put the kibosh on Spoon's IE streaming offering last week. He had been accessing a virtualized version of IE6 directly from Spoon's website to fix application snags related to his company's IE7 upgrade.

"I used Spoon for IE testing every day since I discovered it last year, so when I heard Microsoft killed it, I had a conniption," White said. "There is no clean way to test apps other than using VMs to run full versions of Windows [XP], which slows down my computers."

With application virtualization tools such as Spoon, developers get a real-life development experience in terms of performance, White said.

Hundreds of Spoon customers have railed against Microsoft, to no avail. For now, Spoon users can download an application virtualization product and use it in their own environments, but customers will have to use it on the sly because Microsoft forbids Windows customers from virtualizing IE with any app virtualization tools.

Windows 7 upgrade angst
As for the organizations that aren't breaking Microsoft's rules, they are in Windows upgrade hell. One IT pro, who wished to remain anonymous, said he's doing a Windows 7 rollout at a college. Several applications have trouble with IE 8 -- including the help desk ticketing software that students and faculty use to report issues. Needless to say, the IT team is doing the best it can with the rollout, despite the repeated application upgrade glitches.

"Being a college, departments are allowed to use whatever software and sites they want without IT approval. We just have to make it work," he said. "How many apps are hiding on campus that need IE7 and IE6? I'm hoping the answer is zero, but I know better."

Since compatibility problems are omnipresent, many developers say they need products like ThinApp, Spoon and InstallFree, and they will continue pressuring Microsoft for support, said Mark Margevicius, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

"While [Microsoft's] tactic is to grandstand about licensing and why they can't support it, they ought to enable it and make a use case for App-V," Margevicius said.

The company said in an interview last week that it hasn't budged on this issue. Windows 7/IE8 incompatibility also irk IT pros because the problems are usually caused by Microsoft's own software engineering. So, instead of offering customers of free solution to the problems, the company requires customers to buy products such as MED-V, which requires expensive Software Assurance licenses.

Microsoft's (contradictory) rules
Microsoft's official stance against using application virtualization tools, including App-V, to abstract IE is based on the company's Product Use Rights (PUR). The rules say the Web browser is part of the operating system and can't be licensed separately, and multiple versions of an OS can't be run on a single OS.

There is a lot of ambiguity within Microsoft's rules, though, especially since standalone versions of IE can be downloaded from Microsoft's website, said Paul DeGroot, a longtime Microsoft licensing expert and principal consultant at Pica Communications.

For example, Microsoft says customers can't separate a fundamental component from the OS, so abstracting IE is illegal and cannot be licensed. But the rules also state that an operating system environment (OSE) can include part of an operating system instance, which IE is. As an OSE, it can be licensed, DeGroot said.

"I have had several e-mail exchanges and a briefing with Microsoft on this topic, and there's a real question in my mind as to whether Microsoft is reading its own rules correctly," DeGroot said. "The language that Microsoft told me applies to IE6 and the 'separation of software' is quite ambiguous and does not clearly support Microsoft's assertions."

DeGroot recently wrote about Microsoft's contradictory licensing rules on his website. He said the company's stance against using application virtualization tools for IE is puzzling, particularly since there is no technical reason not to support it. In addition, Software Assurance customers with MED-V already have a second license that they can allocate to virtual instances of IE. Those customers also have a second license for an OSE running directly on a physical machine, he said.

One view is that Microsoft is sticking to its guns on this issue because customers who use app virtualization tools can stay on IE6 longer, undermining the company's mission to get customers on IE8 as fast as possible.

Ironically, Microsoft customers use application virtualization tools as a way to move to Windows 7 and then IE8, said Gartner's Margevicius. "Customers aren't trying to take revenue away from Microsoft; they want to move to the next version of Windows, and [application virtualization] gives them a way," he said.

Let us know what you think about this story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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