Can You Use Microsoft IE 8 Via VMware ThinApp? It Depends On Who You Ask.

As soon as you think you understand software companies’ policies on virtualization, a new problem appears that makes you tear your hair out and scratch your now-bald head. This month’s conundrum is whether or not VMware’s ThinApp product breaches your Microsoft Windows license agreement:

  • VMware promotes this product with the headline “Extend the Life of Legacy Applications, Including IE 6 Applications, with Windows 7 Support.” http://www.vmware.com/products/thinapp/overview.html
  • However, Microsoft, via its knowledge base, claims that “Running multiple versions of Windows Internet Explorer, or portions of Windows Internet Explorer, on a single instance of Windows is an unlicensed and unsupported solution.” http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2020599/en-us#top
  • VMware doesn’t warn customers that ThinApp could cause them Microsoft licensing problems, but neither does it claim that it is legal. It merely advises customers to check with Microsoft.

So who is right, and what should you do if you want to upgrade to Windows 7 but have applications that only run in IE 6? It may be OK for Microsoft to discourage a virtualization solution such as ThinApp on technical grounds, but it hasn’t publicly justified its claim that it represents unlicensed usage. You can run up to 4 local virtual images on each device that you’ve covered with software assurance (SA), and I don’t see any reasonable grounds for differentiating commercially between a full OS instance and ThinApp’s embedded instance. I’m disappointed that Microsoft is blocking a VMware solution to a problem that will delay Windows 7 adoption.

Some sources have suggested that this goes back to earlier EU litigation in which Microsoft claimed that it was impossible to separate IE from Windows, so it is embarrassed that VMware has apparently found a way to do that. I understand that VMware has discussed this issue with Microsoft on several occasions over a lengthy period of time but has not, unfortunately, been able to get it to officially acknowledge ThinApp as a legitimate, if unsupported, solution to the Windows 7/ IE 6 problem. VMware is unwilling to give a legal opinion, publicly dispute Microsoft’s claim, or accuse it of anti-competitive behavior. I understand that, but it is arguably negligent to market the product as an IE 6 solution for Windows 7 without warning customers prominently about the (alleged) license compliance risk. VMware has several customers using ThinApp to virtualize IE 6 without, so far, any seriously adverse side effects, but it won't make any guarantees nor indemnify you against potential claims by Microsoft. I can't see Microsoft testing this issue in court by suing a customer, but IANAL, so I may be wrong.

Bottom Line: If you’re responsible for your company’s Microsoft contract, and you think you may be upgrading to Windows 7 in the near future, then you should find out whether your operations colleagues plan to support IE 6 and, if so, how. You may reluctantly have to ban use of a virtualization solution such as ThinApp unless you are willing to accept a compliance risk.