April 26th, 2006
Dateline: April 6, 2008
Time flies. It's already been two years since Apple surprised the entire computing world with the release of Boot Camp, the software that allowed Windows XP to run on Intel Macs. When I say the "entire computing world," this is not hyperbole. If anything, it underestimates the ripple effects of the news. The announcement made front page headlines in almost every major newspaper -- despite the fact that Apple's own home page barely acknowledged the event (causing the marketing departments of competing companies to drool with envy: "We have to spend millions to get a tenth of the publicity that Apple gets by just issuing a press release!").
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we have a better perspective on whether or not the frenzy of attention was deserved. Did it really turn out to be a seismic shift in the computer landscape? Or was it just a minor temblor? While analysts continue to debate this, the evidence thus far suggests a major shift has indeed taken place. And continues to evolve. But it is due to more than just Boot Camp.
The first sign of the shift occurred within a few months of the release of Boot Camp: Retailers began noting a significant increase in the sales of Mac hardware. Analysis of the data suggested this was due to at least three factors:
- Mac users upgrading their old PowerPC hardware at a faster rate than expected, so as to be able to take advantage of Boot Camp (which required an Intel Mac);
- Fence-sitters on the Windows vs. Mac divide that had been leaning toward the Mac, perhaps due to their love affair with their iPod, finally getting the push they needed (the security blanket of knowing that they could run Windows if and when needed) to fall to the Mac side; and
- PC users who, although not ready to give up on Windows, had been sufficiently frustrated by all the delays in the release of Vista and by the operating system's continuing security hassles to want the option to at least give Mac OS X a try.
This third group was the smallest but the one with the most interesting potential: Would buying a Mac ultimately make Mac OS X converts of these dedicated Windows users? Or would they abandon their grand experiment and revert to a PC for their next upgrade? Data indicate that only a minority of this already small group swam to the deep end of the Mac pool after getting their toes wet. But that was enough, combined with those in the other two groups, for the Mac's market share to go on an upward trend that is just now leveling off at somewhere between 8 and 11%.
What has been Microsoft's reaction to all of this? Ambivalent.
On the one hand, especially in the short run, all of this was a win-win situation for the Redmond giant. As long as each new user purchased a copy of Windows, it hardly mattered whether it was to run on a PC or on a Mac. In fact, in one sense, Mac users purchasing Windows were a better deal for Microsoft. Why? Because Mac users did not get the benefit of the OEM discount that comes with getting Windows bundled with a PC purchase. This meant that Mac users purchasing Windows provided Microsoft with a larger profit margin. So far, Windows sales have held steady through this upheaval. Is Microsoft worried about some Windows users ultimately converting to Mac OS X full time? Not that they have admitted, but if Windows sales start to sag, you may hear a different tune.
Still, Microsoft had to deal with at least one brush fire: the effect of Boot Camp on PC hardware vendors. To the extent that Windows running on a Mac led to Macs being taken home by people who might have otherwise purchased a PC, it was a lost sale for the PC vendor. Although PC vendors still command about 90% of the market, the Apple-induced decline in market share has not gone unnoticed. It is such a competitive field, with such small margins on most machines, that even a small drop can jeopardize the financial position of companies such as Sony or HP.
In fact, some analysts believe this is at least a partial rationale for why Microsoft never released an Intel-compatible version of Virtual PC (its Windows emulation software). That is, after Boot Camp, it no longer wanted to be seen as too-directly promoting the use of Windows on Macs. But there was an even bigger reason behind Virtual PC's vanishing act: while Microsoft was debating what to do, other companies moved in to fill the vacuum. Once the Mac shifted to Intel processors, developing a Windows "virtualization" for the Mac was suddenly a lot simpler to do, with the added bonus of the software able to run at speeds far faster than Virtual PC had ever been able to produce on a Power PC Mac.
And so it was that within hours of the announcement of Boot Camp, a company called Parallels came out with Parallels Workstation, software that allowed you to run Windows (almost any version of it!) side-by-side with Mac OS X (no need to reboot!) and at almost the same speed as Windows running under Boot Camp. A few other companies eventually offered similar products, but Parallels remains the leader.
For the majority of Mac users, who just need to run Windows occasionally and want to be able to transfer data between a Mac and a Windows application, Parallels Workstation is the superior solution. Yet, while Workstation has been a success, there are still more people using Boot Camp. Why? Because it is very hard to compete with "free" (Boot Camp is included with every Mac purchase and every OS X upgrade, at no extra cost), especially when the free product comes from the "mother ship" itself.
While there continues to be speculation that Apple is working on a Parallels-killer application, a product that similarly does not require a reboot to shift operating systems, Apple has so far given no official indication that it is doing so. Speaking off-the-record, Apple executives acknowledge that this is not out of any virtuous reluctance to undercut a third-party developer. Instead, it is because of Apple's continued desire to maintain a hands-off position regarding the support of Windows.
With Boot Camp, Apple provides only the minimal support needed to get Windows installed. After that, you are on your own. If Windows actually ran as part of Mac OS X, using an Apple-supplied emulation much like how the old Classic OS ran under earlier versions of Mac OS X, Apple would inevitably need to provide more direct support for Windows itself. Apple prefers to focus its attention on Mac OS X, not Windows. So, for the foreseeable future, users have to choose between the Parallels approach or the Boot Camp solution, or use a combination of both.
Despite Parallels advantages, Boot Camp remains the clearly preferred choice for devotees of at least one software category: games. Having to reboot the Mac before you can run Windows turns out to be a plus for playing games: there is no chance of a conflict between the game software and Mac OS X, there is more direct access from the game's code to the computer hardware, and there is a small but significant speed advantage. All of this is critical to game software. Finally, when playing a game, you are generally not concerned about transferring data to another application, so you don't miss the fact that you can't do that via Boot Camp.
The result is that Boot Camp has given Mac users access to hundreds of games that would not previously play on their hardware. However, there has been a downside to all of this: development of Mac OS X versions of games has almost completely dropped off the map. Sure, there are still a few companies making Mac-only games. And, where cross-platform development is not costly, you still see versions coming out for both Macs and PCs. But otherwise, game developers figure Mac users can just as well play the PC version [actually, a bigger issue may be the decline in development of games for all computer platforms, as more and more games are being released only for dedicated game machines such as Xbox or PlayStation].
Happily, for Mac users, developers of other categories of Mac software have not gone down the "games" road. Except for a few instances of programs that were never that successful on the Mac in the first place, any significant program that had a Mac OS X version when Boot Camp first came out is still available and continues to be updated. And new Mac OS X programs are getting released at a faster pace than ever before.
One thing is certain: Early concerns that the ability to run Windows on a Mac would lead to a decline in the use of Mac OS X, ultimately leading to Apple giving up on Mac OS X altogether, have turned out to be completely unfounded. New and better versions of Mac OS X continue to get rolled out every 18 months or so.
In the end, Boot Camp did not change the life of Mac users all that much. It just made it easier and more desirable to be a Mac user -- with the result that the size of the Mac community keeps getting larger. This, in my view, is the seismic shift that began in 2006. And we aren't done feeling the aftershocks yet. The ultimate effects could turn out to be an even bigger story than it has been so far.
Note: Although based on facts, the preceding account is a work of fiction. Any similarity between this account and what actually happens in the next two years is purely coincidental.
Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.
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