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Examine the history of vSphere Flash client -- and its downfall

To see why the vSphere web client failed to live up to expectations and learn from those mistakes, study its development and the technological landscape at the time.

VMware's vSphere 6.7 Update 1 contains the new, fully featured HTML5 interface. This marks the beginning of a new era for VMware users, as the dated C# and vSphere Flash client are being relegated to the dustbin of history. More importantly, this move also marks a turning point for VMware, albeit one that hasn't been widely celebrated.

The C# client was a Windows-only client that was eventually supplanted by the Flash-based client. The vSphere Flash client was designed to be multi-platform, hypothetically including mobile device limited use, but this was quickly kiboshed by the complete abandonment of Flash by mobile platforms. The HTML5 client is VMware's first truly cross-platform management interface. It offers the full management capabilities of vSphere on any device.

A little bit of history

VMware's future might not hinge on a single product, but it arguably hinges on the existence of a single management interface. To understand the whys and hows of this, we need to wind all the way back to the 2000s.

Back then, Windows was the unquestionable king of endpoint OSes. There's room to quibble about which OS was dominant in the data center, but if a person was in front of it, chances are it was Windows. At one point, estimates had people using Windows on 96% of internet-connected endpoints. That includes phones, desktops, laptops and the early internet-capable gaming consoles.

Windows didn't have much of the embedded market, meaning industrial equipment and vehicles tended to use non-Windows OSes. These computers either didn't have people interfacing directly with them or people only used them to control specific devices. They weren't generic computers that people might use to manage an organization's x86 virtualization infrastructure, for example.

VMware's future might not hinge on a single product, but it arguably hinges on the existence of a single management interface.

So while some people in the 2000s used BlackBerry smartphones or Apple Macs, these individuals were outliers. People didn't use these devices to manage IT infrastructures, and it wasn't expected that they would. This all changed in 2007.

2007 was an important time in the history of the IT industry. It marked the launch of the iPhone and the start of a series of catastrophic mistakes by BlackBerry, formerly Research In Motion. That same year, Microsoft unleashed Windows Vista, Office 2007 and a raft of supporting products. Virtually the entire 2007 lineup of Microsoft products were savaged by critics and rejected by customers.

In 2005, Apple ported OS X to x86, and by 2007, uptake was spreading beyond the traditional hardcore Apple die-hards. In 2006, Amazon launched Amazon Web Services, and by the end of 2007, it was clear that Amazon wasn't planning to be just another web hosting provider.

By 2010, these nascent trends were simply part of the fabric of reality. Microsoft rectified its mistakes with the 2010 series of applications, launched Hyper-V with Server 2008 and brought forth its own public cloud with Azure. Unfortunately for Microsoft, adoption wasn't great. Windows 7, Office 2010 and Server 2008 R2 were beloved products, but Hyper-V and Azure were struggling. Meanwhile, the rest of the Microsoft stack came under renewed assault from open source, especially among cloud adopters.

If it wasn't crystal clear that the world was going to move beyond Windows in 2007, by 2010, it was painfully obvious that Microsoft's stranglehold on the endpoint market was finished. This had some very real implications for VMware; its management platform at the time -- the C# client -- was Windows-only.

vSphere HTML5 client timeline

The VMware ecosystem really started to explode around 2010, which complicated matters. Startups were building integrations into the C# client left and right. In fact, more startups sought to add integrations than VMware had the capability to vet and certify, ultimately resulting in a series of minor scandals because people thought VMware was picking winners by prioritizing the certification of some startups' integrations over others.

VMware saw the writing on the wall and developed the vSphere Flash client, which admins could operate from a web browser. Though the initial release was slow, it had the ability to manage vSphere from non-Windows OSes and offered a number of enhancements over the C# client. Unfortunately, the few months after the Flash client's initial release in 2012 marked its peak.

The downfall of the vSphere Flash client

The first iPhone was not particularly successful or good. In fact, it was a middling phone that wasn't widely available and lacked a number of features. However, it was much easier to use than its competitors, and Apple relentlessly improved the phone over the subsequent generations until it dominated the high-end smartphone market, grabbing a significant portion of the market in the United States.

This was highly problematic for VMware because Apple banned Flash from its iPhones. Far from dooming the iPhone, the devices went on to be the category leader, and ultimately catalyzed an industry-wide repudiation of Adobe's security vulnerability-ridden proprietary product. Even before VMware's vSphere Flash client achieved general availability, a death warrant was signed for the technology it was built on.

VMware customers were reluctant to switch away from the C# client, which caused ecosystem partners to deprioritize porting their integrations to the Flash client, especially after all the work that went into getting certifications for the C# client. This resulted in more customers being reluctant to switch, and adoption stalled.

As new versions of ESXi came out, VMware only provided functionality for new features in the vSphere Flash client. Many organizations ran the C# client for day-to-day activities, using the Flash client -- often with great frustration -- only when absolutely necessary. As the versions crept by and the vSphere Flash client improved, more and more organizations switched to it as their primary interface, but it was clear right from the beginning that it needed to be replaced.

Part two of this two-part series covers the vSphere HTML5 client and what the release of the fully featured version might mean for VMware as a whole.

This was last published in November 2018

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