Intel Macs give users more OS choice

The idea of running Windows on Apple hardware just got a lot more appealing with the introduction of Macs built on Intel processors. But don't expect the company to be too keen on its users running Windows on the new machines.

"We haven't done anything to explicitly prevent it, but we haven't done anything to encourage it either," senior product line manager, Wiley Hodges, said at last month's MacWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco.

Apple introduced two new Intel-based machines - an iMac desktop and the MacBook notebook - at MacWorld. Both are available now.

Even without specific help from Apple, the existence of Macs built on Intel's x86 instruction set will eventually give users a choice of operating systems (OSes) to run on their new Apple machines.

Analysts claim it won't be long before someone comes up with a version of Windows that runs natively on the new Intel-based Macs, even despite a firmware incompatibility issue that prevents Microsoft's OS from running on the new Intel-based Macs.

The new Macs support extensible firmware interface (EFI), whereas Microsoft's Windows XP supports BIOS, and the two are not natively interoperable. EFI and BIOS control the basic functions a computer can do without accessing programs from its hard drive.

Penguin power

"I have no doubt that a clever person would figure out how to make it work even if Apple doesn't support that," program vice-president at IDC, Dan Kusnetzky, said. "I've been amazed at how people have looked at vendor choices and found a way to do what they wanted to do anyway."

Linux is also a potential option for users that want to have more than one OS on their new iMac or MacBook, according to vice-president of open-source software and services firm, SourceLabs, Bruce Perens.

There were already Linux distributions - such as Yellow Dog Linux - designed for the Mac PowerPC architecture, he said, but it was only a matter of time before somebody came up with a version of Linux for the Intel-based Mac platform.

"It probably just needs to be tested and tweaked slightly," he said.

In fact, if someone had the desire, they could run Mac OS, Windows and Linux simultaneously on one of the new Macs, Perens said.

"If we take this to its conclusion, you could have three OSes running on these machines at once," he said. "Only a geek would want to do it, but it would be fun."

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Before anybody became too excited by the potential of multiple-OS Macs, they should remember that the issue of support is a critical one, Kusnetzky said. One benefit of having a computer that runs multiple OSes was that it removed the need for corporate users to install two machines on their desks, in order to run both Mac and Windows applications. But enterprise users tended to shy away from running an OS on a machine without some kind of vendor support.

"That begs the question of who will support it once [Windows] is running," Kesnetzky said.

According to Microsoft, there's nothing that precludes Apple from certifying and supporting Windows on the Mac now that it is an industry standard-based hardware company.

"Just like all of Microsoft's OEMs, Apple can build industry-standard hardware that is compatible with Windows; Microsoft has an open specification and a process for certifying the hardware," a company spokesperson said in a statement.

Apple spokesperson, Teresa Weaver, confirmed that Apple had no plans to sell or support Windows, but said the company was doing nothing in its hardware design to preclude their systems from running the OS.

Mac users have been able to run Windows applications on Macs for some time through emulation software, including a Microsoft product called Virtual PC. Microsoft plans to update that product to run on the new Intel-based Apple machines, but has not disclosed when.

Code Transaction

The problem with running Mac applications on Windows through emulation had been performance, president of Canada-based, John Czlonka, said. His company makes software that enables Windows applications to run alongside Mac ones on Apple hardware, and will have a new version for the Intel-based machines by the end of February.

"The biggest bottleneck to performance has been in translating code meant for PCs to the PowerPC processor on the Mac," he said. "Every emulation solution has run at a fraction of the speed of native code because of this."

The introduction of Intel-based Mac hardware should make the emulation of Windows applications a lot easier and faster, he said. With Mac moving to Intel processors, translating code can be skipped and native PC code can run at the speed it is meant to run, Czlonka said.

Robert McMillan contributed to this article