Thursday, April 06, 2006

Windows users: have your cake and eat it--but in separate rooms

Much ink has been spilled over the last 24 hours about the implications of Boot Camp, but so far, I haven't read a single article that really hits the mark as far as I'm concerned. Read on to find out the real reason Boot Camp is good for Apple, and what I think it will mean over the short and medium terms.

First, when Steve Jobs announced the switch to Intel chips--the first salvo of what is turning out to be a barrage--he mentioned that Apple had been building Intel versions of OS X since the very beginning. Many an eyebrow was raised at this, though it was probably the reason behind the long-standing and persistant rumours of the Intel switch. Jobs' purported explanation for the move to Intel was that the Power PC chip was no longer meeting the company's expectations and that Intel's chips provided a better roadmap toward the future. And while there is undoubtedly some truth to this, the real reason for OS X's "secret double life" is now beginning to emerge with the release of Boot Camp and the announcement that this functionality will be integrated into the next update of OS X, Leopard: an all-out, no-holds-barred assault on Windows. Such an offensive is not without risks, but Apple has always been a company that takes risks, especially with SJ at the helm, so it's not all that surprising.

As many others have said before, there is now no reason for the Mac-curious Windows user not to buy a Mac. The ability to boot Windows on the new Macs (and by some accounts at least, Windows runs blazingly fast on a Mac) means switchers can benefit from Apple's solid hardware and stylish good looks and not have to give up all their Windows "legacy" software. And of course there's the added benefit of being able to use OS X when they get tired of Windows' crashing or filling up with malware.

And this is undoubtedly what Apple is counting on: an initial boost to hardware sales as switchers buy Macs, followed by a gradual increase in the adoption of OS X.

So far, this plan sounds pretty solid and may be successful. However some have said that this spells the end of software development for OS X, since developers such as Adobe will simply throw their hands up and force users to use the Windows version of, say, PhotoShop, even on the Mac, since they don't want to spend the time and money developing an OS X-native version. But I don't buy this argument, at least not yet. First of all, in the short term, there are still a lot of power users on PPC Macs that will demand OS X native software, and it will be many years before the majority of Mac users have upgraded to Intel machines (heck, nearly 6 years into OS X, there are still a lot of people who swear by OS 9). This is even more the case now than it was during the last Apple transition because computers have much longer useful lives today than they did five years ago.

Of course, as is always the case with announcements like this, there were those who said Apple hadn't gone far enough. As soon as Bootcamp was announced, Apple forums and blogs began to fill up with comments like "this is great, but if I have to re-boot into Windows to use a Windows app, this is useless to me." And therein lies the crux of this whole issue, as I see it. Boot Camp is not for today's Mac users. It's for Windows users. It is a tool to entice switchers over to the Mac and eventually to OS X. I'm going to make a bold prediction here: Leopard will not have virtualization built in because Windows virtualization, much more than the ability to boot into Windows on a separate partition, WOULD threaten OS X software development. I don't think it's the goal of Steve Jobs and company to blur the lines between Windows and OS X. Apple wants Windows users to adopt Macs, and that includes OS X. Allowing Leopard to virtually run Windows would be a mistake, at least in the short term. If you'll indulge me in stretching a metaphor, letting Windows users have their Windows cake and eat their OS X cake in separate rooms is a brilliant move. But allowing them to have both cakes and eat them too would be disastrous. Of course, third parties will release virtualization software (in fact, it has already started), and there's no reason to think that Microsoft itself won't eventually release a version of Virtual PC that runs at native or near-native speeds. But I doubt Apple wants to make it too easy.

Only if and when OS X achieves a significantly higher portion of the OS market share will it be something Apple might consider. But we're still many years away from that.

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