By Charles Haddad Sooner or later, every Mac user confronts the ugly challenge of trying to connect to a PC world. I face it nearly every week, after my Mac-written stories have been edited on PCs at our New York headquarters. Without fail, the PC litters my story with funny coding, which takes me up to a half hour to strip out.
Connecting with PCs can be a drag, but it's much easier than five years ago, when a PC couldn't read any Mac file. Today nearly every Microsoft file -- whether a document, spreadsheet, or PowerPoint presentation -- is easily readable on Macs and PCs. My Mac can access almost every Web site, download most music and video files, and play a DVD. The agnostics are at last winning out in the long-running religious wars among the computing platforms.
TRIUMPH OF MIMICRY. To me, the greatest and most impressive victory is the ability of Mac software to emulate not only the Windows operating system but the Intel processor that runs it as well. I'm talking, of course, about Connectix' Virtual PC program, which has recently been updated to version 4.
Allow me a moment of gloating. With Virtual PC, a Mac can run just about any piece of Windows software. And it can run it at the same time and alongside -- literally window to window -- any Mac software. That's got to be the ultimate mark of superiority, the ability to mimic the competition. It's a triumph that, at least in spirit, helps ease my weekly torment of having to strip out funny coding.
Virtual PC has come a long way since it was first introduced three years ago. The first version was a nightmare. You needed a degree in computer engineering to figure out how to set up the program. And like Windows 95, which it was trying to copy, Virtual PC crashed all the time.
SLEIGHTS OF HAND. Not so today. Now Virtual PC is an awesome piece of work, starting with the setup. Just pop in the program CD, and like any first-rate Mac software, Virtual PC walks you through installation. And unlike most Mac programs today, Virtual PC comes with a thorough and well-written manual (are you listening, Bill Gates?). The program can perform some very sophisticated sleights of hand, and you'll need the manual to get the skinny on them. For example, Virtual PC can share your Mac's IP address and connect to a PC network. Or you can connect directly to the Internet from within Virtual PC.
It does all this by tricking your Mac into thinking it's a PC running on an Intel processor. It's called an emulation, with Virtual PC running PC software in a separate window on your screen. You can jump in and out of the emulation by simply clicking your mouse on the Mac desktop and then on the Virtual PC window. And you can even run several versions of Windows at the same time in separate Virtual PC windows. To do this, however, requires a lot of RAM and storage space. I'd recommend at least 128 MB if you want to simultaneously run Windows 95 and 98, for example.
The program works amazingly well. You can really run a Mac program and PC program at the same time without a hiccup. I've run everything from Microsoft Office to the latest multimedia game on my Mac with Virtual PC. That includes games such as Sid Meier's "Gettysburg!," a real-time Civil War simulation. Though it was a bit sluggish, and the video and sound were jumpy at times, this game ran for hours without crashing on my G3 laptop.
STILL UNSUPPORTED. While impressive, Virtual PC isn't perfect. It doesn't yet support 3D hardware acceleration, increasingly important in playing games or designing them. Nor does it support multiprocessing. Also, Virtual PC doesn't yet support the latest Windows systems -- though that's coming. Connectix says it soon plans to release a variety of configurations of Virtual PC, with some preinstalled with Windows ME, Linux, or Windows 2000. And of course, Virtual PC doesn't yet support OS X, Apple's new operating system.
Still, Virtual PC is impressive enough now that I think it should come preinstalled on every Mac along with Quicken and AppleWorks. Most Mac users would find the program an invaluable tool in smoothing out any rough connections with the PC world. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online