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VMware: Microsoft for the 21st century?

“Deep down, Maritz and his colleagues know the traditional operating system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

I wrote that sentence last month, when I argued that VMware’s iPad app actually strengthens IT’s reliance on Windows, not diminishes it. Although CEO Paul Maritz and co. have been banging the “death of the traditional operating system” drum for years now, their vision of VMware as a Windows OS killer is still a pipe dream.

And honestly, if VMware execs wanted to compete head-on with Microsoft in the OS market, they could’ve gone and acquired Novell when they had the chance. The fact that they didn’t is telling. They’d rather attack the traditional OS indirectly, through the applications market, and this strategy has really come together in the past few weeks.

As colleague Bridget Botelho reports, VMware now has cloud-based email and collaboration (Zimbra), desktop backup (Mozy) and presentation software (this week’s SlideRocket acquisition). And Project Horizon, which her sources say will be out in three weeks, will be able to integrate all these services using Active Directory.

The Zimbra and Mozy acquisitions were head-scratchers at the time; many observers felt they had nothing to do with VMware’s focus on virtualization. But it’s pretty clear now that virtualization is no longer VMware’s endgame.

So what is? Well, I’m not exactly sure what you’d call it, but it sure seems like VMware wants to be Microsoft for the 21st century — a company that offers everything from productivity apps to data center infrastructure software, but does so within the context of on-demand, service-based computing.

Successfully executing this strategy will be a challenge for VMware. Despite VMware’s data center dominance, corporate reliance on Exchange and PowerPoint will not be easy to shake. And although VMware has very loyal customers, they’re mostly infrastructure pros, not application owners.

Still, a lot of the pieces are in place now. And the next time VMware makes an acquisition — of, say, a unified communications service or content management platform — it will be a lot less puzzling.

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