Late last year, VMware launched a new bring your own device (BYOD) plan under which every one of its 6,000 U.S. employees was required to use his or her personal mobile phones for work. The mandate was more than a cost-saving measure. VMware appears serious about establishing itself as a leader in post-PC era enterprise computing, and getting intimate with the benefits and challenges of BYOD is essential to that plan.
"We needed to eat our own dog food," says Javier Soltero, CTO of SaaS and Application Services at VMware.
Entering the Post-PC Era
VMware was born on the idea of desktop virtualization, but its server virtualization technologies really put it on the map. It has since added cloud infrastructure management and a cloud applications platform to its portfolio. Now it's taking a much more expansive view of desktop virtualization with a vision it calls End-User Computing that encompasses extending its middleware to all end-user devices in the enterprise, especially smartphones and tablets.
"We're focused on filling in the part beyond desktop virtualization and truly delivering solutions that offer knowledge workers and end-users more broad, secure, manageable ways to leverage mobility," Soltero says.
A Hypervisor for Mobile Phones
One of the ways it plans to do that is VMware Horizon Mobile Virtualization, a project that started as a mobile hypervisor for a particular Android phone, and which may just solve one of the stickier problems of BYOD: how to manage access to sensitive company data stored on personal mobile devices. With Horizon, customers will be able to virtualize a complete mobile phone image that can be remotely managed by IT and provisioned and deprovisioned rapidly. With Horizon Mobile Virtualization, employees could use their personal device to do things like checking Facebook status, and then switch to the business instance to create expense reports or answer business-sensitive emails.
But it's not enough to simply answer the management problem of BYOD, Soltero says. Truly embracing the post-PC era means changing the way we think about delivering and consuming applications. The vision goes far beyond mobility—it's about transforming the way end-users interact with all the tools they use to do their work. VMware has always had the goal of "business transformation through IT transformation," Soltero says.
"We're trying to bring to life a new application platform specifically tailored to next-generation devices," he says. "Mobile is a symptom. It's not the cause. The cause is the shift from a multi-function Website view of the world, where every application was really approached from a feature-rich portal where you access any one of potentially 50 or 100 different functions. You show up at this one door and there's probably 50 or 100 doors behind it. That doesn't work here. It doesn't work for consumer applications and it doesn't work for enterprise applications."
Consumerization of IT Changes Thinking About Enterprise Apps
From content management systems to Intranets and everything in between, Soltero says he believes enterprise applications have become unwieldy and difficult for end-users to use.
"The majority of internal content in an enterprise over the last 10 years has all been expected to be dropped off in this place called the Intranet," Soltero says. "I think that concept is frankly going to get completely up-ended. It's gotten completely unmanageable. It's pretty hard to find stuff in there. The amount of content that gets produced makes it really hard to deliver a timely, fresh experience."
Soltero says end-users are increasingly turning to mobile apps because they're streamlined and focused. For instance, use an airline application online and you're likely to encounter a complicated affair with dozens of options. But on a phone or tablet, the app is often stripped down to focus on three or four things that a user needs access to while on the road, with an interface optimized to make using intuitive. And consumer-focused apps are generally not nearly as onerous to use as enterprise apps, Soltero says.
"The user experience for enterprise applications just sucks," he says. "Even applications I use every day at VMware, I'm glad I only have to use these things for very limited amounts of time."
"The opportunity to use both the interaction metaphors as well as a lot of the layouts and more streamlined UI approach often found in tablet applications to provide access to enterprise content is phenomenal," Soltero says. "I'd rather use something like Flipboard to peruse the different channels that are available to me within the enterprise."
In Soltero's vision, developers building enterprise applications won't worry about the infrastructure that underlies the application. They'll just focus on the code. When various devices access the application, VMware's middleware would deliver the content in a manner native to the devices and their UI capabilities.
Transforming Communication and Collaboration
VMware is also looking at the nuts and bolts of communication within the enterprise and targeting it for transformation.
"Corporate communications has to change," he says. "The way people work today, for the most part, is that we have two tools at our disposal that we use for getting work done: PowerPoint and email. Most communication, at least at a technology company like VMware, is done as part of presentations that are shared over email."
That's not only unwieldy, especially in the case of large files, it's insecure and poses additional problems like version control to boot.
"It's a lowest-common denominator collaboration technology," Soltero says. "The reason we use it is that everybody has it."
VMware is attacking that issue from multiple directions. One direction is Project Octopus, VMware's enterprise-grade answer to consumer-focused Dropbox, which has proliferated as a rogue cloud within enterprises as users seek a way to easily share documents and files between their devices.
Project Octopus is intended to give users the capability to securely share files and collaborate regardless of the devices they use, while giving IT the capability set and manage policies for data access and sharing, both across the organization and with external collaborators.
Another direction is Socialcast, a microblogging platform VMware acquired last year. Socialcast's technology allows VMware to embed activity streams, including communication, directly into apps like CRMs and ERPs.
"This really enables mobile devices to be a primary vehicle for participating," Soltero says.
Where Is This Road Taking Us?
So given VMware's vision of End-User Computing, what will the enterprise look like five years from now?
"Windows will still be around," Soltero says. "But the way in which you access Windows applications and anything related to your traditional desktop computing will be completely different. You won't be accessing your desktop and its mouse and the whole business through a tablet. You might just have the relevant user interface components of the device you'll be using transmitted directly to the device."
"We'll build a better bridge," he adds. "Five years from now, you will hopefully have closer parallels to the consumer experiences for things like file sharing and communication in the enterprise. You'll see that significantly closer to the things that have been successful in the consumer world."
"And you'll see a different relationship between users and IT," he says. "Today, in the potentially contentious process of consumerizing IT or delivering on this post-PC era, often IT—for perfectly understandable reasons—is kind of the gatekeeper and denier of things rather than the enabler of things. My hope is that we'll see less of this shadow IT. Instead, IT will have developed the processes and partnered with the right technology companies to enable this different interaction with its users. To me, that's a foregone conclusion. It has to happen."
Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for CIO.com. Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Thor at email@example.com