Opinion: Virtually free

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When Microsoft arrives late to the party it always likes to bring gifts.

When the Internet almost passed by Bill Gates windows without him noticing, he turned the company on a dime and offered the world a browser for free. Every analyst declared the strategy would fail – nobody wants what’s free when the existing product is better and doesn’t cost much.

But they didn’t count on Microsoft actively handing out the freebie with every PC and despite major legal action, the battle was lost. Now nobody pays for a browser, and never will.

Fast forward to the world of virtualisation and there sits VMWare, so succesfule that EMC bought the company, and now the undisputed king of all things virtual, despite the best efforts of several other players.

But these guys are operating system agnostic – they don’t care what you run virtually as long as you run it virtually. That’s not what Microsoft likes to see. The company’s previous virtual partner, Citrix, was better behaved from Microsoft’s point of view, selling mostly into the Windows server market. Redmond, we have a problem.

Along comes Hyper-V, Microsoft’s own answer to the virtual server world, and now we learn they’re giving it away. Well, it’s not totally free, because you have to buy a copy of Windows Server 2008, but last time we checked, most of you were going to be doing that anyway.

And now you can make the things virtual, without finding another $400 for VMWare. And yes, the hypervisor from Microsoft will run Linux or Unix or any old nix you like, as well as Windows servers. It’s shaping up as the browser war of the 21st century. But who will win?

So far, people have kept on paying for Microsoft’s Office product, despite there being an almost identical clone available for free from Sun Microsystems amongst many others. In browser land, the opposition was tiny and soon succumbed to the freebie offered by Redmond.

This time around the opposition is a whole lot bigger, with EMC’s vast resources behind the scenes of an already substantial venture. Will they just give up and surrender to Microsoft?

Will they sue them sideways under some arcane trade law? Or will people just keep on paying for what they can get for free?

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