On Monday in San Francisco as it unveiled its latest plans for the new frontiers of networking and storage, Vmware proposed that we have entered the third generation of IT, or what they’ve termed “The Mobile-Cloud Era.”

The crowd at the Moscone Center for VMworld 2013 generally nodded in assent to that idea. It’s almost impossible to deny that mobile devices have revolutionized the way we access the digital world, while the cloud has transformed how and where those digital services are running.

As for the three eras in the history of IT, Vmware CEO Pat Gelsinger named them in his opening keynote on Monday:

  1. The Mainframe Era
  2. The Client-Server Era
  3. The Mobile-Cloud Era

The first one was about a highly-centralized, highly-controlled IT infrastructure that was primarily about data processing. The second stage was about decentralizing IT and triggering a lot more grassroots-powered innovation with computing. The third stage is about billions of people interacting with apps and data at any time and from any place.

When you unpack it, Gelsinger said there are actually four trends currently powering this third era:

  1. Mobile
  2. Cloud
  3. Social
  4. Big data

He also correctly noted that these four are destined to evolve because technology companies are less about long-term development of a product and more about peddling innovation. More than any other industry, technology companies are likely to have a completely different product as its core business 5-10 years from because the technology landscape is evolving at such a breakneck pace. As such, IT has to embrace its role as catalysts. “We’re the people who make you better,” said Gelsinger.

However, while Vmware talks a big game that makes it sound like an market disruptor, it’s important to realize that the company remains highly conservative and and pragmatic about the state of enterprise computing. That’s a good thing for highly regulated industries with lots of legacy technologies. They need stability and are willing to pay a premium for it,and that’s where Vmware comes in. But, this approach also means that Vmware remains mostly tied to the old data center model—now popularly known as “private cloud” or “hybrid cloud”—but it also means that they want to tie you down to the kind of licensing fees and big maintenance contracts that most technology decision makers have become allergic to.

The contrast between that approach and the way startups and small businesses are embracing the public cloud for their IT needs was illustrated at a VMworld 2013 panel that included Gelsinger and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. These two Silicon Valley leaders sparred continually throughout the panel about the current state of IT as well as its future trajectory. Take a look at this write-up of the panel from my colleague Chris Duckett.

While Gelsinger is largely right in his characterization of the tech industry, it’s unclear whether his company has the right long-term strategy for how the market will play out by pinning all of their hopes to the private/hybrid cloud. Gelsinger said it will be “decades” before the public cloud is ready to support 100% of enterprise IT.

Since new companies are choosing to get their IT from cloud provider in large numbers—under the direction of advisors like Andreessen—the real test will be whether these small businesses stick with cloud solutions as they evolve into tomorrow’s large enterprises. Or, will they migrate to the kind of traditional IT solutions that companies like Vmware still represent?

The cloud will certainly have to evolve in order to address the kinds of compliance, governance, and data security concerns that are keeping many enterprises away from larger cloud migrations. However, betting on cloud solutions to remain indefinitely embryonic would be naive at best, especially coming from a company that has rightfully articulated the relentless pace of this industry. I expect Vmware will continue to succeed in big ways in the near future, and it’s possible that its vCloud will evolve into the kind of public cloud solution that Gelsinger scoffed at during his face-off with Andreessen. But, for the moment, Vmware’s lofty rhetoric about cloud and IT innovation and are not always congruent with its actual solutions.