The smartest thing Steve Jobs has done in a long time was committing to Intel's CPUs to power the Macintosh line of desktop computers. That made possible Apple's Boot Camp software, which lets you install and run Windows XP natively on Intel Macs.
The furor Boot Camp stirred up by making it possible -- and fully sanctioned by Apple -- to install Windows XP on a Mac turned a negative PR trend (hackers installing XP on the Mac) into a positive. It also focused the spotlight on the Mac, provoking guilty, techno-lust on the part of Windows users everywhere over sleek dual-core Intel-based MacBook Pro notebooks. It won major publicity for Apple, not to mention a nice spike for Mac sales this month.
But the message Apple's decision sent to the Mac faithful garnered mixed reactions. Some thought it ingenious while others wondered whether Apple might not be keeping the faith. As a long-time Windows reviewer and the owner of a MacBook Pro and PowerPC-based Mac mini, what Apple did seems to me to be nothing more than the natural extension of adopting Intel processors. Not astounding, but the next logical step, and something you can't hold back. It was technology with a real advantage finding its market.
Despite the hoopla, Boot Camp is aimed solely at Windows users. It runs XP natively on the Intel-based Macs, and if you want, without your having to deal with OS X much. You get the nice Apple hardware, and the familiar Microsoft OS with all those apps. And it runs XP very fast.
But Boot Camp is not convenient for Mac users at all. Who wants to reboot his or her Mac just to nip into a Web site that requires Internet Explorer? Most experts agree that Mac users will prefer virtualization technology that is fast and well integrated with the Mac environment. The Intel underpinnings of the latest crop of Macs make that proposition a lot easier -- and faster.
I've been testing betas of Parallels Workstation 2.1 virtualization software for Mac OS X for the last week or two. The latest prerelease version, beta 4, fixes several issues with the earlier betas and is both stable and more functional. Parallels' device support is quite good, and while installation demands some reference to the documentation, once installed, the product is fast and easy to use. Even better, both Windows XP (it supports several versions of Windows and Linux) and applications that run on it do so with alacrity.<
Anyone who's used Microsoft's Virtual PC on PowerPC-equipped Macs may have a jaded sense of what it's like to use Parallels. Parallels is fast. There's no hesitation, no screen lag, and programs and dialogs snap open. While it's not quite as fast as Boot Camp-installed Windows XP, the difference is negligible. When you factor and the time required to reboot and the inconvenience of doing so, the desktop virtualization delivered by Parallels will surely make it the right solution for most experienced Mac users and at least some Windows users.
Despite opening the door to Pandora's box by embracing Intel hardware, it seems unlikely that OS X will ever be sold as operating system software that Windows users might run in a virtualization window on their PCs. That far along the path to desktop Glasnost, Apple won't go. As low as the margins are for PC hardware, Apple wouldn't make serious money by separating OS X from its elegantly designed pre-packaged hardware. Besides, together they make a unique computing experience that commands a significantly higher margin. But with a dwindling market share, Apple has its back against the wall, and it has to do something to win over new Mac users.
Alexandros Roussos's MacOSXRumors site has published articles citing unnamed sources that Apple is working on virtualization technology in Apple's OS X 10.5, also known as Leopard. That could make things a bit more interesting. Apple could be laying a virtualization foundation for the next major version of OS X that would make it easier for third-party products to extend the OS X kernel. In which case, Apple might well include basic virtualization software of its own in OS X Leopard. But as I alluded to in this piece on Boot Camp, Apple's Holy Grail is getting the vast libarary of Windows applications to run natively on OS X. There's a palpable feeling that Apple has something else up its sleeve, and adding its own virtualization functionality would be, well, anticlimactic.
In his I, Cringely PBS column, Robert X. Cringely recently published his supposition, with intriguing supportive reasoning, that Apple will include in OS X 10.5 specific support for the Windows APIs (application programming interfaces). By doing so, Apple would make it possible to run many Windows applications natively in OS X. That would be a significant trick for Jobs to pull out of his hat. Cringely also predicts that Apple will offer support for dual-booting into Windows Vista. He's also predicting that Apple will significantly revise OS X's kernel in order to significantly boost performance.
An interesting note to add to Cringely's predictions is that Microsoft is heavily revising the Windows APIs for Windows Vista. Of course, the new APIs will be backwardly compatible with the old set -- meaning that Win32-API apps (like those that run natively on Windows XP) will be fully supported under Vista.
But if Cringely is right, Apple may be about to pull off what would have been considered an outright miracle only a few years ago.
Whatever Apple can do to make it easier for Mac users to access Windows applications should help win over converts. But my colleague, Frank Hayes, is right. In the short run, it's unlikely Apple will win over IT departments in large numbers. But it can sure nibble around the edges with early adopters and top level execs. As Apple does this, it may spur some IT shops to lay the groundwork for the help desk expertise they might someday need. No one is betting on major competion for Windows desktops in the enterprise, but the barriers to entry could be shrinking.