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An Open-Source Opening for Apple

By Alex Salkever The deal came like a thunderbolt out of the blue. On Feb. 19, Microsoft (MSFT) announced that it had purchased Virtual PC, the nifty program from San Mateo (Calif.) software producer Connectix that allows us Mac zealots to run PC programs. For Mac users living in an info-tech universe where Windows dominates, Virtual PC has been a crucial survival tool.

Take the case of TekServe. The New York City outfit sells Apple (AAPL) hardware and software, and offers consulting for companies using Macs. "We're an all-Apple shop," says Matthew Cohen, one of three partners in the venture. TekServe has become a mainstay in the Mac-heavy media community of midtown Manhattan. And by many accounts, it's one of the biggest independent resellers of Apple equipment around.

STRADDLING THE FENCE. Still, even TekServe needs Windows sometimes. Cohen sells Sony displays. To do so, he must run a special inventory and sales software program distributed to all Sony dealers called SNAP. It runs only on Windows. So Cohen relies on VirtualPC. So do about 1 million other Mac users who need to straddle the operating-system fence from time to time.

Cohen reacted with some trepidation when I told him about the Connectix deal, which both Apple and Microsoft have been painting as a cause for celebration. Tim McDonough, marketing director at Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit, says Virtual PC has a bright future in Redmond (see BW Online, 2/21/03, "A "Perfect Marriage" for Microsoft?"). Apple software chief Ron Okamoto served up a canned quote saying he was glad Virtual PC was in such good hands.

Perhaps. But if I were a fly on the wall at Apple HQ right now, I suspect that it would be easy to confirm that the folks at One Infinite Loop are none too pleased. Steve Jobs has never liked the fact that Apple needs Microsoft more than vice versa. Redmond's deal with Connectix amplifies that point: Now, Microsoft controls two things vital to Apple's survival. The first, Microsoft Office, allows Mac users to converse with the rest of the computing world in the most popular file formats -- Word and PowerPoint documents.

OPEN-SOURCE POWER. The second piece, Virtual PC, may prove even more valuable than the first. And that's where Apple needs to think out of the Bochs. No, that's not a typo. Bochs is open-source software that functions as a Windows emulator on Unix machines. Apple needs to leverage the power of open source to win much-needed independence from Redmond.

Here's why. Apple is a hairbreadth away from creating a suite of products that could replace much of what Office does. I've been using Apple Works as my primary word processor for some time now, and it does just fine for what I need -- not elegant or pretty, but you can count words, check spelling, and perform most basic formatting tasks.

Apple's new mail client eliminated the need to use Microsoft Entourage for individual and small-business users. And presentation application Keynote covers another of the essential functions that would formerly have required purchasing Office v.X -- it can read PowerPoint files. No, it doesn't replace PowerPoint proper if, say, I'm at a meeting and need to run a presentation on someone else's machine. But it's still pretty close to covering the main tasks Mac users need.

As Apple improves its calendar and address-book applications, my decision to run my life on Mac software looks less quixotic. No offense to Redmond -- I know that Office v.X is a strong product, but I'm cheap.

INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT. The upshot of all this is, I believe, Apple's reliance on Office v.X has dramatically decreased. That's the good news. Unfortunately, the need for a product like Virtual PC has only increased. It provides a key security blanket for people moving from the Windows platform to Macs by allowing them to make the switch gradually. After all, if Windows withdrawal starts to hit, they can always run their familiar software on their Apples.

And much as we Mac lovers hate to admit it, many of us need to run Windows programs from time to time. This could be at work where a specific program doesn't have an Apple version, an all-too-regular occurrence. It could be at school, if the entire software bundle a class uses comes from a PC outfit and Mac versions aren't available. I use Virtual PC when I need to run Windows programs, such as music jukebox Winamp, that have Mac versions but are markedly superior on PC platforms.

Virtual PC fills a critical need -- which is why the Connectix deal should be a call to action at Apple HQ. Think what would have happened if Microsoft had bought Virtual PC in, say, 1999. Apple would have been in a pickle. Steve Jobs would have had to bow, scrape, and do whatever it took to make Redmond happy and keep Virtual PC going. Or Apple would have had to throw a ton of cash and developers at the problem and build its own Virtual PC.

STREET CRED. Oh, how times have changed. Apple now has cash to burn -- billions, really. Today, 5 million Macs run OS X, the new Unix-based operating system that has liberated Apple from its creaky, archaic OS 9. The open-source movement has matured to the point where it's putting out increasingly polished software. And Jobs's troops have street cred in the open-source community for their contributions to the Unix-based Darwin software that powers OS X.

Jobs & Co. also recently released its own version of a piece of technology called X11, which allows Unix and open-source Unix-based applications to be translated to Macs far more easily. In fact, X11 should mean that many Unix and Linux apps can simply run on OS X Macs with no code alterations needed. The upshot? Making a Mac-ready version of Bochs isn't just possible but positively easy.

Apple has the financial resources to dedicate a few engineers to the task of polishing Bochs to meet Jobsian ease-of-use and boy-is-it-pretty standards. Ultimately, Apple could weave Bochs into the operating system. Perhaps even as early as the upcoming Panther release (you know, the one after Jaguar OS X 10.2), Apple users could pop a Windows CD or DVD into the drive, and OS X would seamlessly launch Bochs and run the Windows code. In fact, I bet Apple could get this process to run smoothly enough that loading PC software would differ only slightly from launching Mac programs.

BEWARE REDMOND'S WRATH. Of course, ticking off Microsoft could lead to problems down the road. Redmond has promised it will integrate the Entourage mail client into Microsoft's dominant Exchange server, which allows group scheduling, companywide address book sharing, and other useful functions not currently available to Mac users. That's important for businesses that want to use Macs for some functions in a mainly PC environment, since it allows the two to communicate via the server. If Redmond decides not to continue support for Entourage in Exchange, it would be a big blow to Apple. An even worse possibility -- Microsoft might let Office v.X wither.

Microsoft has no reason, though, to get steamed if Apple does build its own Windows emulator. After all, Mac users would still need to pay for a Windows software license. To offer PC emulation in an above-ground fashion, Apple could sell Windows licenses twinned with Bochs software as part of a package deal. That might save Redmond the trouble of keeping Virtual PC for Mac up to snuff and would still send a steady stream of dollars to Microsoft's coffers.

What's more, PC emulation is exactly the area where Apple should rely on the open-source community for software and development. Lots of Unix and Linux users need it, so it's highly probable that a strong open-source support group will develop around Bochs or other PC emulation. That gives Apple a ready-made support and research team for Bochs. So, all the stars are in line. Take control of Apple's PC-emulation destiny, Steve. Gather the forces of the open-source revolution, and open the Bochs. Salkever is Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online. Regular "Byte of the Apple" columnist Charles Haddad is on temporary leave

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