Switching to Windows (On a Mac)

Apr. 5 was one of those days after which nothing will ever be the same. That's when Apple Computer (AAPL) released Boot Camp, an application that lets owners of Intel-based Macs install and boot their computers to Microsoft's Windows XP. I consider it a watershed in the history of personal computing.

Yes, I've had my reservations about the possible drawbacks of running Microsoft's operating system on a Mac (see BW Online, 3/22/06, "Macheads, Just Say No To Windows"). Still, potential benefits abound, and I'm eager to enter the era of single-machine bliss about which I've long dreamed.


  Boot Camp makes it possible to run Windows as a native operating system on the Mac. No need for convoluted hacks or so-called emulators like VirtualPC that makes one kind of computer impersonate another type. You install Boot Camp on an Intel-based Mac, burn a CD with the drivers you'll need in Windows, create a disk partition for Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows, then install Windows.

I have yet to spend much time interacting with Windows on a Mac, but I have had a quick look, and the results of this Beta release are encouraging -- if you find using Windows encouraging. A colleague loaded Boot Camp onto a MacBook Pro. I went over, and there it was, the familiar green-pasture desktop of Windows XP. On the system tray, there were all the little advisories emanating in those irritating yellowish balloons.

This was Windows all right, with all the annoyances it brings. As useful as Boot Camp will be -- and I do expect to be using it -- running Windows carries inherent weaknesses. I can see it now: installing all the anti-virus and anti-spyware, and taking all the other steps associated with preparing a Windows machine for today's risk-heavy computing world. Make no mistake, Windows on a Mac will bring a measure of unpleasant baggage.


  Still, I am nothing if not bi-platform. I spend my working days in Windows under only mild protest (I can tolerate it so long as I can use Mozilla Firefox to browse the Web) and use a Mac at home. But now my long-held dream of a computer that comfortably runs both systems is within reach. If like me, your needs are bi-platform, Boot Camp looks like the answer to your troubles. You can spend most of your time in OS X, and boot to Windows when you need to. I applaud Apple for this capability. It's been a long time in coming.

Here's the rub: Boot Camp forces you to reboot to get Windows on your Mac. When you want to switch over to Windows, you need to restart and hold down the option key to select your Windows partition as the startup disk.

Imagine, if you will, a machine that allows you switch back and forth between Mac OS X and Windows without the hassle of rebooting? That's what a company called Parallels says can be yours. The Herndon (Va.)-based outfit launched a new software product for Beta testing a day after Boot Camp's release. Yes, it's an emulator. But it's a little different from versions like VirtualPC. It's called Parallels Workstation, and a trial version is available for the Mac.


  Let's say you're a Mac user who happens to need regular access to various versions of Windows -- and maybe IBM's (IBM) old operating system OS/2, or Red Hat (RHAT) Linux. Apple's machines use some pretty powerful Intel chips that have some cool computing tricks baked in. One of those is virtualization, which allows a computer to run more than one operating system at once, rather than one at a time.

This technology delights big businesses with lots of servers because it lets them put old legacy systems on newer boxes and get rid of their big iron, or even cut down on the number of boxes they have to run. And it's showing some real potential in the desktop environment.

Emulation on the old PowerPC-based Macs was often painfully slow, because it required emulating an x86 chip like those from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). You can't do that and expect comparable performance. But now that Macs run some of the best chips Intel has to offer, the arduous task of creating a simulated x86 computing environment is no longer a problem.


  Throw in virtualization, and you can set up a situation where you have two displays, one running Mac OS X, and one running Windows XP, or Windows 95 or Red Hat Linux, or whatever you need. And when you want to step out of the emulated environment back to the Mac, you can put it on pause so it doesn't slow anything else down.

Parallels promises to run almost every version of Windows you've ever heard of, plus MS-DOS -- but also several versions of Linux, including Red Hat, SUSE, Fedora and Mandriva, FreeBSD, Sun Microsystems' (SUNW) Solaris 9 and 10, and even OS/2, and its successor eComStation.

If you're inclined to switch to a Mac but you've had reticence about abandoning applications that only work in Windows (or whatever platform you're accustomed to), take heart. The dawn of era of the multi-personality Mac is upon us.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.