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Is need for control behind Microsoft's flip-flop?

A developer writes that virtualization represents a threat to Microsoft's control of the desktop and licensing restrictions are one way to try to maintain its grip.

While many were left scratching their heads over Microsoft's decision not to ease its Vista virtualization rules, one reader sent in an interesting theory.

For those who missed the story earlier this week, Microsoft was on the eve of allowing home versions of Vista to run inside virtual machines, but abruptly shifted course and said it would stick to rules that only allow the Ultimate and Business versions to run inside virtual machines. That left lots of folks disappointed and confused as to why Microsoft was doing such a thing.

San Diego developer Floyd James posits that one reason Microsoft wants to keep the status quo is that although virtualization can mean more revenue for Microsoft's Windows business, it also opens the door for the operating system to be in a less central role.

"It is likely to mean that some other OS is running directly on the hardware instead of Windows, and there is the motive," James said in an e-mail. "Microsoft controls the market and by letting another OS on hardware and allowing a migration path by allowing a cheap copy of Windows to act as the compatibility layer is not protecting their monopoly and/or control of the market."

A Mac running Parallels fits this example, offering Windows compatibility while allowing much of a user's desktop life to exist in Apple's world.

"There are many many many cases where Microsoft is willing to spend billions just to make sure the Windows gravy train is protected," James wrote. "Virtual machines are a migration tool for those looking to get out from under Microsoft's control."

Microsoft has declined to comment on the reasons behind the move.

Meanwhile, Gartner analyst Michael Silver took Microsoft to task for its continued restrictions.

"Microsoft's policies...come off as a way to gouge customers," Silver said in an e-mail, noting that customers are forced to pay for higher priced editions, even though they don't get many of the benefits, like the Aero user interface, which often won't work in a virtual machine.

Silver argues that Microsoft is likely leaving money on the table. "Allowing use of lower priced (editions) could even be worth more money to Microsoft as it would likely increase the number of people that would legally run a Microsoft OS in a VM (like on a Mac)," Silver wrote. "Eventually they will have no choice but to make their peace with virtualization."