FAQ: Macs running Windows -- what you should know

Only the newest Intel-based Macs can run Boot Camp

Apple Computer Inc. today unveiled software that will allow new Macintosh computers to run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP software natively (see story). But not all Macs will be able to use the software, which Apple has dubbed "Boot Camp." While it's been released as a free public beta for users to try now, the final version will be included in the next upgrade to Mac OS X, due out later this year.

Here's what else you should know.

What was actually announced today? Apple released software called Boot Camp that allows its newest Intel-based computers to run Windows XP natively. The free public beta is 83MB and can be downloaded from Apple's Web site. It is available without technical support "for a limited time."

What models of Apple computers can actually run Boot Camp? Only Apple systems with Intel chips will run the software. So far this year, the company has released several Intel-based models: the Mac Mini, the 15-in. MacBook Pro laptop, and two versions of the all-in-one desktop iMac. Apple also notes that you need a computer with a built-in or USB keyboard and a built-in trackpad or USB mouse. In other words, wireless keyboards and mice don't work -- at least not yet.

What else do I need to run Boot Camp? You need Mac OS X 10.4.6 or later. Apple updated Mac OS X a few days ago, so run Software Update if you haven't done so recently. You also need the latest firmware update available for your Intel-based Mac, at least 10GB of free space on your start-up disk and a full, single-disc version of Windows XP Home Edition or Professional with Service Pack 2 or later, as well as a blank CD. The CD will be used to create Macintosh software drivers.

I've got an earlier version of Windows XP. Will that work? No. Apple is very clear on this point. "Your Windows XP installation disc must include Service Pack 2 (SP2). You cannot install an earlier version of Windows and upgrade it to Windows XP, nor install an earlier version of Windows XP and update it with SP2 later."

Is this legal? Entirely. Apple isn't pirating Windows XP. It's offering software that simply allows XP to run natively on Macs. You still have to supply the XP installation disk, meaning a lot of Mac owners may soon be checking out the Windows aisle at their local computer stores.

Why did Apple release this software? There are probably a lot of reasons. Hackers had already been able to create a kludgy way of booting Windows XP on the new Macs, mostly because they wanted to see if it's possible. But Apple had, until today, expressed little interest in making it easy to do. Including it in its upcoming version of Mac OS X 10.5, or "Leopard," also adds real value to that upgrade for Mac owners -- making it more likely that they'll buy it. It also means that would-be Mac owners who must run a program that works only in Windows can now buy Apple hardware and keep using their Windows-only software.

How else could this be good for Apple? This could be extremely beneficial to Apple's market and mind-share. Apple will see computer sales rise as people see a win-win situation and try the company's computers. In essence, they're getting two computers in one -- a Macintosh that runs Mac OS X and Windows XP. If even a quarter of new Apple customers stay on Macs, Apple's market share will boom. Developers will see this and respond accordingly.

What does this mean for companies considering a switch to Mac hardware? It means they have a backup plan if they choose not to go solely with Mac OS X. Any Apple hardware using Intel's chip set can run Windows, and any company looking to try Macs, risk free, now has a legitimate exit strategy if they find that the Mac platform isn't what they were looking for. This is very much a win-win situation for Apple's customers.

Why did Apple do this now? Apple is touting this as a preview of one of the features for Leopard. Consider that hackers have already gotten Windows XP to run on Mactel hardware, virtualization software company Parallels announced plans to offer something similar, and there are a variety of open-source projects in the works. In light of all that, Windows on the Mac was only a matter of time. But to have Apple officially support this is a huge vote of confidence to companies and individuals who are interested in trying Macs but are afraid of spending hundreds of dollars for untested and (as far as they are concerned) unproven technology.

How does this affect Mac software development? Theoretically, it shouldn't hurt Mac development. The most obvious argument is that with Macs able to run Windows applications -- either in dual-boot or in parallel -- software writers know that they could write just the Windows version and that would work on both platforms. However, that argument could (and was) used regarding the old "Classic" OS environment when Mac OS X was first announced, and developers wrote OS X-native apps anyway. Software developers will always listen to their customers, and as more and more people use Macs (especially now that there really is no risk to them with Boot Camp), these same people will begin to demand that applications run natively on their preferred platform.

Microsoft is a good example of this. It's had versions of Office for Classic Mac OS and Mac OS X, and they're currently working on the Intel Mac OS X version. Why? Because their customers demand it. Money talks, and if customers are willing to pay, developers are willing to code.

Does this hurt Microsoft? Not really, if you think about it. Suddenly, if anything, Microsoft has gone from catering to about 90% of the market to catering to almost 100% of the market. If Apple decided to sell dual-boot machines or, better yet, a version of OS X that can run Windows in parallel, then people would still have to have a license for Windows. If Apple sold Macs with Windows on it, Microsoft would still make money. Plus, there's Microsoft's Office, which is the industry standard and isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Since Office is cross-platform, Microsoft is making money regardless.

What about using Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware? Will Apple allow that? The answer is no, as long as Steve Jobs is in charge. Don't look for Apple to turn into just a software company. Jobs believes that one of his company's strengths, and what makes Apple highly competitive and innovative, is the fact that it makes and sells the whole widget. Keeping the amount of hardware Mac OS X officially supports (through Apple) guarantees complete hardware and software parity.

However, third-party vendors will have a much easier time writing drivers of their products for Mac OS X because of the Intel switch. They no longer have to worry about writing drivers for a variety of processor platforms, and instead of dealing with processor-specific code, they can write drivers for their products for Mac OS X.

See more about the Boot Camp announcement:

Ken Mingis is Computerworld's online news editor and Macintosh Knowledge Center editor. Mike De Agonia is a computer consultant and technologist who has worked on Macintosh computers professionally since 1996. Currently, he is working as an independent consultant at MacTek Consulting and as an IT staffer at a major publishing firm.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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