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Licensing Headaches: Is VMware Or Microsoft Worse?

Recent VMware pricing controversy shows that software vendors are from Mars and IT is from Venus. But don't let emotion cloud your software plans.

Nobody in enterprise IT likes the state of software licensing. Nobody. Indeed, an IT manager at a very large corporation recently confessed to me: "Nearly all Microsoft employees on my account team admit they do not understand Microsoft's licensing structure and must always defer to 'licensing and compliance' for explanations."

Microsoft takes a lot of heat from IT managers, and some of it is well deserved. But given the recent licensing revisions from VMware, which could cost customers a lot more money, is Microsoft now the good guy in comparison?

Let me step back a bit. I was at one of those organizations in the 1990s that got hit with a Microsoft licensing compliance audit. Fortunately, we had a great sys admin, desktop and automated asset management, and an obsessive-compulsive purchasing department, and they chewed rapidly through the audit. So I have been irritated first hand with what appears to be the arrogance of software vendors.

But after chatting with a number of licensing experts lately, including IDC's Amy Konary, I think I understand what's going on between software vendors and enterprise IT: Enterprise IT is from Venus; software vendors are from Mars. I chatted with Konary after the VMware debacle, and she laughed. "The Venus and Mars that you describe has always existed," she says. Software developers have a long history of changing the rules without notice, even when there's no explicit stipulation for doing that in the license.

To be fair, Konary says, they usually try to hold 80% of their users harmless. So it's highly unlikely that VMware took a step calculated to hack off its customers. This wasn't one of those "we can change the licensing terms on your existing product without notice" moves.

VMware isn't changing the license with the new version of its core product. It's changing the licensing model of future versions, in this case the new vSphere 5.0. This isn't the first time a vendor has changed the terms and conditions of future upgraded software, Konary points out.

Changing terms and conditions aside, software licensing is just hard to swallow. We want to own something without complications, without strings attached. Or if there are strings attached, we want to know what those strings are so that we can decide whether we want to deal with them before getting involved.

Problem is, ownership doesn't exist with software. Even with open source, you don't own the bits; you own an entitlement to use the bits. As a software intellectual property owner, you (correctly) feel like you own the software. As a software intellectual property user, you also (incorrectly) feel like you own the software.

This feeling comes mostly from putting considerable time, effort, and other resources into making the software work. It's like when your employer issues you a vehicle or a laptop: You personalize it, so you feel like you own it. When you deploy VMware or SQL Server or any other major infrastructure software, you spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on acquisition, underlying infrastructure, training, consulting, and professional services. It's not easy to swap it out, so you feel like the vendor has some obligation to keep what appears to be a social contract.

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