Since at least 2006, Microsoft has given away free Virtual PC disk images of Windows XP (and eventually Vista), with Internet Explorer 6 (and eventually IE7 and IE8) pre-configured on them, so that Web developers can properly test their sites under Microsoft's growing family of browsers.
This has been a boon to the Web developer community, and one that has led that community to express its appreciation by bashing Microsoft when their free gift didn't meet developers' always-growing and sometimes irrational demands.
In providing (and constantly updating) these disk images, Microsoft has done a remarkable thing: giving away copies their flagship products, albeit in a somewhat limited form. Sure, it's a form of enlightened self-interest, because doing so means that developers are more likely to build sites that play nice for Microsoft's customers' computers, but still, it's a big deal.
There are (somewhat unflattering) reasons that Microsoft had to resort to this surprising tactic: each successive version of Internet Explorer replaces the previous version, including portions of the operating system itself. The United States made a federal case out of the deep intertwingling of IE and the OS.
As a result, it is not really possible to have multiple complete, properly-behaving versions of IE on one computer at the same time. There have been various hacks that kinda-sorta let you have multiple versions of IE installed, but as a developer, you want to reproduce the end-user's experience as accurately as practical to be sure that your site works as you expect.
Microsoft overcame this difficulty by making free copies of Windows available, pre-configured with the company's browsers, in the form of disk images that could be run under Microsoft's also free Virtual PC (VPC) software. The disk images were time-limited: after a couple of months, they needed to be replaced with new images from Microsoft.
Even in the face of Microsoft's free tools, the griping began: developers on Macs and various flavors of Linux whined that, because Virtual PC only runs on Windows, they still had to buy Windows-compatible computers and a real copy of Windows in order to use the VPC images.
Well, gee. It's not surprising that Microsoft didn't give away virtual machines that run on competitors' platforms. Other companies make 'em, and some of them are free, too! The commercial VMWare Fusion lets you run Windows on a Mac. VMWare offers similar products for Linux and Windows. In fact, VMWare offers the free VMWare Player (for Windows and Linux). Sun Microsystems also gives away VirtualBox (for Windows, Linux, Macintosh and Sun's Solaris).
In time, people figured out how to convert Microsoft's VPC disk images to run under VMWare and Virtualbox. At first, these still involved a Windows machine at some point, but eventually, all-native Mac and Linux processes emerged.
Still, there was complaining about the fact that the VPC images expired, but people seemed grateful enough to be able to test their sites under IE6, 7 and 8 without having to put more money in Redmond's pockets.
Then, unexpectedly (even to Microsoft, it seems), a line was crossed.
With the August 27, 2009 version of Microsoft's VPC images, converting them to work under VirtualBox or VMWare Fusion began triggering Microsoft's "Windows Activation" copy protection, rendering the converted images useless after a three-day grace period.
Pete LePage (PeteL) at Microsoft blogged about the problems that people were having running the IE VPCs under other virtual hosts, going as far as to invite those who were having trouble to write to him, describing their environment, to see if he could figure out what changed and fix it, if possible.
The reaction was immediate and nasty:
You know... it's decisions like this that truly make me want to express to your organization that if I could stop developing for your stupid f-ing browsers altogether, I would do it in a heartbeat.
I understand the writer's feelings and empathize with his frustration, but this is no way to convince a benefactor (Microsoft) that there is a problem with their gift to you.
I can see why some folks at Microsoft — particularly, the IE development team — want this to be fixed, but I can also see why those who attend to Microsoft's bottom line might be in a position to say, "Hey, we're giving away free copies of Windows XP and Vista. All we ask is that you use our freebies on top of something that underwrites those freebies."
I wonder if other computer companies — especially those with unususlly vocal fans — would be as generous? As Apple becomes a bigger player with its cross-platform Safari browser, where is an officially-supported and freely downloadable "Virtual Macintosh" and free downloadable (time or otherwise limited) copies of Mac OS X Leopard or Snow Leopard with pre-configured Safari 3 or Safari 4? Where is the developer community's wrath over that oversight?
What do you think? Does Microsoft have an obligation to make it possible to run IE6, IE7 and IE8 on Windows XP and Vista (and eventually, Windows 7) on competitors' operating systems? Do developers have the right to demand that they do?