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Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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VMware, Why Are You Buying SlideRocket?

Acquiring the presentation software company and pushing into end-user apps seems strange, but the virtualization firm's new VP of apps insists it's core to what they do.

VMware is acquiring the Web-based presentations firm SlideRocket, whose slides can update information in real time as they are displayed to an audience. If members of the audience Tweet responses, SlideRocket can analyze those messages--and update the presenter in real time, as well.

The ability to gather information, keep a presentation lively, and even guide the presenter dazzled Javier Soltero, VMware's new CTO of applications, when he first saw SlideRocket in action at its Second Street headquarters in San Francisco. He realized the underlying functions buried in SlideRocket's software--the ability to query a Google spreadsheet for new data with which to update a slide, or add a new quote out of a Google Doc--would be useful to a wider set of end-user applications, if SlideRocket's skills could be brought to bear on them.

In one sense, he said during an interview about the acquisition, SlideRocket "is just presentation software, like PowerPoint. But the entire experience of building slides online, collaborating, and sharing a real-time presentation is something different. It's the next step in delivering a new way for how end users will work."

I, too, am impressed with SlideRocket's knowhow, its 20,000 customers, and its 300,000 users. But I'm asking myself why VMware is buying it. End-user productivity applications? Is that really in VMware's charter, and in its culture?

Soltero insists it is. And he's the VP of applications there, a newly created post.

VMware is venturing into new and uncertain territory with SlideRocket. This is a company that has been doing just fine in its own domain. In the past I've been impressed with the logic of how VMware used one position to move into another, such as going from server virtualization into managing virtualization and from there into building out the public and private cloud.

Soltero said in a similar manner, it will take the SlideRocket capabilities and apply them in additional end-user applications. SlideRocket is software as a service. Slides are built using Adobe's Flex language, which runs in the Flash player on PCs and allows animations, video, or other multimedia to appear in the slides. SlideRocket has adapted its user interface to be able to run on many mobile devices.

Besides, he said, VMware was already in end-user applications with its Zimbra acquisition.

I don't find that a convincing argument. Zimbra was an excellent open source, business email system. Many universities and small businesses saw fit to implement its mail servers to get away from Microsoft Exchange license fees. But most businesses stuck with Exchange, and I don't see VMware changing that picture much just because Zimbra moved over to VMware from Yahoo. What makes VMware think its customer base wants it to supply them with end-user applications?

Soltero now paints a broad ambition for the company. It's going to provide end-user applications that represent state of the art for emerging virtual environments, and that of course, includes the cloud. Its first step in that direction was the acquisition of SpringSource, supplier of the Spring Framework for lightweight Java application development. (Soltero arrived at VMware with that acquisition.) Previously, he and I have discussed and debated many issues as he worked as CEO of Hyperic, the open source cloud monitoring system that was acquired by SpringSource.

When VMware acquired SpringSource in August 2009, many people didn't understand the move and challenged the wisdom of it. I saw the wisdom at the time, terming the deal a cunning one.

It gave VMware a basis from which to understand the application running in the virtual machine. It gave it a popular platform for building applications that were going to run in virtual machines. In the future, Spring-based applications could be built with instrumentation and reporting features that would give the VMware hypervisor and the VMware management system clues as to how the application was performing. That addressed virtualization's blind spot, and could give VMware a competitive advantage in managing the environment.

That all made sense to me, even though it seemed like a long shot at the time. Since then SpringSource has become the basis with which VMware appeals to developers to target its environment. It's been able to create a platform as a service,, where developers may launch projects, based on its SpringSource technologies being available in its own cloud offering.

As much as I admire SlideRocket, this acquisition makes less sense. But it did give me the pleasure of another debate with Soltero.

With SlideRocket, I maintained, VMware has moved away from what I would call its core strength in virtualized systems and tried to extend its reach to the end user. I've never seen end-user computing, virtualized or otherwise, as a VMware strong point.

That brought out the most forceful argument from Soltero. "The shift to the cloud is happening with, or without, VMware. We have to decide our role in it ... It seems clear to us that the old way of using the desktop productivity suite is broken," he said, and VMware wants to be in a position to help supply the next generation.

The SlideRocket presentation service fits into this picture and can quickly become a service offered to developers making use of VMware's recently announced Cloud Foundry developer environment. SlideRocket in turn can draw information from Yahoo Maps, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, etc., and that becomes a feature in the application. As a systems vendor, VMware will isolate the plumbing that enables SlideRocket's interactive reach and make it available to other applications, said Soltero.

I have to admit, this plays to a VMware system-side strength. It well understands how interior plumbing can be leveraged across many end users on the front end. But how large will the VMware library of applications become? Isn't there an element of wanting to compete with Microsoft--perhaps unwisely-- in this acquisition?

Soltero said VMware isn't striving to become the biggest end-user application company in the world. "We're serious about end-user apps, but the end game doesn't look like a suite," he said. "We are not out to build an Office suite."

Instead, he said, presentations are such a core function of the modern business that the SlideRocket application will be a draw for more developers, end users, and virtualization managers to get aboard the VMware platform and make use of it.

"We want to bring on board the talent [the 25-30 SlideRocket employees] that can help turn us from master plumbers into interior designers for consumers," Soltero said.

Now that statement surely captures the task VMware has undertaken. I'm not sure they can do that. I'm not sure it's wise for VMware to try. Nevertheless, it's started down an application path, and apparently there won't be any looking back.

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek.

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