Mac Skeptic: Have We Reached Operating Systems Detente?

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The release of Intel-based Macs made it inevitable, and now it's an open secret: You can make yourself a dual-boot Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows XP machine. This came about after a platoon of savvy system tweakers chased and won a prize that rose to almost $14,000. has the necessary software as well as extensive, community-provided documentation, but the procedure requires a fair amount of technical savvy to successfully complete. (Besides, you need access to a PC with Windows XP--which you purchased the license to, of course.)

Like Colin Nederkoorn, who started the contest, there are plenty of us who prefer Macs but need to use both platforms for various reasons. Until Microsoft releases an official, commercial product that allows "Mactel" owners to run Windows applications, this DIY approach is the only option for owners of Intel-based Macs.

Can the OSes Just Get Along?

As Apple continues to phase out PowerPC-based Macs, more people will need some kind of solution for Intel-based Macs since Virtual PC 7 doesn't work on them. A FAQ on Microsoft's site says: "We are working with Apple to determine the feasibility of developing Virtual PC for Mac for Intel-based Macs. Virtual PC for Mac is highly dependent on the operating system and hardware and will require additional development to run on Intel-based Macs."

Even when a packaged option appears, plenty of people will prefer to bootstrap Windows onto their Macs--both because they can and to deprive Microsoft of any extra revenue. Of course it remains to be seen whether any commercial "Windows on Mac" solution will run inside OS X or natively, but faster is always better, so running Windows sure looks like the way to go.

I've asked Apple to comment on the phenomenon, and have not yet received a response; I'll update this column if I hear from the company. However, it doesn't appear that installing Windows voids the Mac's warranty.

I also asked Microsoft whether this will prompt the company to produce Virtual PC for Intel-based Macs any more quickly. Microsoft's Amanda Lefebvre, marketing manager for the Mac business unit, has this to say: "Building Virtual PC for the Intel-based Macs isn't just a matter of moving code to a new environment and testing. It's more similar to building a version 1.0 release due to how closely the product speaks to Mac hardware. While we don't yet know what the future of Virtual PC will be, we're investigating as speedily as possible, and the Mac BU is already hard at work building universal applications for Office and Messenger for Mac."

Note: Just before this column posted, Apple released beta software that lets users run Windows XP on Intel-based Macs. For details, read The Mac Skeptic's blog or Editor-in-Chief Harry McCracken's Techlog. --Editor

Let's Benchmark

A news snippet surfaced late last month that also hints that the gulf between Macs and PCs is growing just a bit smaller (though it's unrelated to the DIY XP-on-Mac project). Apparently, Apple has joined the PC benchmarking consortium BAPCo, which maintains and distributes SYSmark and MobileMark benchmarking software for Windows PCs. Other BAPCo members include Advanced Micro Devices, Intel, Microsoft, and numerous PC and PC-component makers.

It's hard to know just what to make of this report, for a number of reasons. No press release about this has been issued by either BAPCo or Apple, and apparently Apple doesn't want to talk about it. The company did not comment despite repeated requests, and when I questioned BAPCo I was given neither confirmation nor denial; I was referred back to Apple's PR department, which maintained its silence.

In addition, the report first surfaced on Gearlog, a blog published by Ziff Davis; the publishing company belongs to the BAPCo consortium. Regardless of how Gearlog obtained the information, the announcement--which, of course, got picked up by numerous other Mac news outlets--gives Ziff Davis's benchmarking outfit a bit of publicity and possibly some extra credibility, so it's not unreasonable to wonder what motivated its publication.

PC World's Take on Benchmarking

PC World tests the performance of Windows PCs using WorldBench 5, benchmarking software that it developed, consulting extensively with hardware and software makers. When I asked Ulrike Diehlmann, PC World's Test Center director, what she thought about Apple joining BAPCo, she had much the same reaction that I did: She didn't know exactly what to make of it, and wondered what Apple would gain from the relationship.

Diehlmann and the rest of the Test Center staff are certainly interested in the performance of Macs: They've already tried installing Windows XP on an iMac. When and if an Apple system can be tested with WorldBench 5, they will almost certainly give it a try.

PC World has done some limited, manual time tests of both platforms, collaborating with sibling publication Macworld, whose Speedmark measures the performance of Mac models against each other. Manual time testing is impractical to do frequently or on a large scale. No speed test is ever going to definitively resolve the "Mac vs. PC" debate. And even though the numbers from automated benchmark tests are just one factor in gauging the quality of a system, being able to quantify the performance of Macs alongside PCs would certainly help in making comparisons.

Some staffers at Gearlog tried a provocative experiment: They installed Windows on a range of Core Duo Macs and speed-tested them, then posted the results of their limited tests. The blog post makes it clear that the testing was done in the spirit of "because we're curious and because we can" experimentation, and the results were not represented as any kind of product recommendation. For several reasons, including that XP-on-Mac installations don't have a full complement of device drivers, currently any conclusions about their performance versus native Windows PCs cannot be considered direct, methodologically sound, er, apples-to-apples comparisons.

Taken together, Gearlog's informal time tests and Apple's possible membership in a Windows testing group lead me to wonder: Are Apple and Microsoft cooking up a flavor of Windows to run on Mactel boxes? It would be a really hard idea to swallow, except that the option is already out there; it's possible that Apple wants to get in front of the issue with a package that is easy to install and that has an official channel for support. Stranger things have happened.

But perhaps Apple joining BAPCo has no more significance than maintaining good industry relations. If Apple has some news to divulge on this matter, I'm all ears.

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