Hidden Dimensions -- Boot Camp May be Just the Beginning

by John Martellaro
April 24th, 2006

Whenever Apple releases a new product, observers, writers, and analysts tend to see the item in very narrow terms. A good case in point is the recent release of Boot Camp. To be sure, Apple is gauging the response to this product, but if the degree of general excitement and Peter Oppenheimer's comments in the link above are any indication, Apple will be pleased with the results of the downloads.

Apple does this a lot. Testing the market waters is important for Apple because, first, they've been running very lean since 1997, and second, Apple just hates to be embarrassed. When a company is as image conscious as Apple, they just can't afford to waste time looking bad by dabbling in a technology that's going nowhere.

The other thing that Apple does very well is to try to understand the customer needs and to leverage off of those needs by building an ecosystem around successful products -- like the iPod.

As a result, I tend to see Boot Camp as a likely beginning -- just step one in a sequence of well-planned phases that will ignite another fire. Bear with me a minute while I backtrack just a bit, because, in fact, it all started with Virtual PC.

When I was with Apple, I can tell you that Virtual PC was problematic for many users. I don't mean the very technical customers, but rather, the every day consumers that I would engage. When they would ask me about running Windows software on a Mac, subtle issues arose. You could see their eyebrows furrow. There were just too many knowledge gaps for the average Mac user.

First, the customer had to do a two stage install. They were almost always intimidated by this prospect. Second was the price: more than $200 to get XP included. Third, the emulation speed gave them pause. The perceived difficulties just built up and often killed their interest. To be sure, many astute users purchased, installed, and ran Virtual PC with ease, but for many others, it was a project that was just too imposing.

When Microsoft purchased VPC from Connectix, that just made matters worse because it put the fate of this valuable tool in the hands of the same company that makes Windows, and the same company that Apple goes up against in many competitive business situations. So little gotchas would crop up in VPC and be slow getting fixed.

Apple, I think, has been very unhappy with the user experience of VPC, and it seems like a natural progression, now that they have Intel-based Macs, to fix that problem.

I can foresee several possible next steps after Boot Camp that would extend over the next four or five years. This is all speculation merely to remind us how Apple can be very good at extending and fueling a favorable trend.

Phase 1. Boot Camp puts Apple back in control of the Windows enabling factor on Macs. Even though the install process is similar to VPC, Apple gets to design that process and Microsoft can no longer fiddle with VPC to their advantage. It's a baby step. Apple can advertise, manage, and control the environment in which a standard version of Windows installs, but, of course, without having to support Windows. Good start.

Phase 2. Leverage the marketing. Windows installs and runs on Intel Macs thanks to Apple's genius and hard work. Apple provides the solution. Not Connectix. Not Microsoft. Apple is your solution, and it's free in Leopard. Essential PR for the future.

Phase 3. Once customers are aware that Windows is a no-brainer on an Intel Mac, Apple can start to manage the hardware and software infrastructure in which Windows resides. As customers are well exposed to the idea that Apple is the enabler of Windows on Macs, then a virtualization system can be introduced, touted as a great improvement, which runs Windows along side of Mac OS X instead of dual boot. Apple can continue to control the messaging on this which is important. Whether Apple will use the Parallels system or one of their own will be a technical/cost/benefit/legal analysis for the executive team to make. Apple is then poised to build tools (Apple's solution again) that manage Windows as it runs along side of Mac OS X.

Going a step farther, still in accordance with Apple's stated policy: "We have no desire and no plan to sell or support Windows," Apple could nevertheless encourage Apple VARs to pre-install Vista making it even easier for the consumer. (Not much encouragement seems required.) In fact, this has already started with XP and Boot Camp.

A side note here. Apple touts itself as the company that ignited the personal computer revolution. It just has to frost Steve's freezer that the company that holds 90% of the PC market in operating systems has so badly handled the security and reliability of Windows. Let's face it, with the emerging VM rootkits, Windows users are headed for further pain and suffering. Wouldn't it be nice if Apple could fix this problem, make the PC safe again, but at the expense of the PC industry?

It can.

Phase 4. Next, attack the problem of the security infrastructure of Windows. Since Mac OS X can take care of itself fairly well, Apple could build tools that protect Windows: scan for kernel changes, VM rootkits, modified files, malware, and so on. (Technically, this isn't support. Just good housekeeping.) If Windows becomes badly damaged, blow it out and reload a protected image from disk. As John Gruber put it so brilliantly, Windows Vista, becomes a ghetto OS. Like Classic, continuing to quote Gruber, Windows is "something to be done while holding one's nose." It's protected by Mac OS X and lives on under the supervision of and at the pleasure of Mac OS X. (Apple might have to build its own virtualization system to achieve this technical feat.)

Now the fire is blazing.

Ongoing Economic Warfare. Don't forget that every PC has a copy of Windows XP for which the manufacturer paid Microsoft. The best data I could find on what Microsoft charges OEMs suggests that it averages about $50 for Windows XP Home. Let's use Dell as an example. Dell has about 17% of the worldwide market of 57 million PCs sold last quarter, which comes to about 9.5+ million units. So Dell alone is paying, very roughly, just under two billion dollars to Microsoft each year. I could be off by +/-50% but probably not by an order of magnitude.

Now we're several years down the road. Customers who are thinking about buying a PC have a choice.

Not only is Dell sweating the fact that they sell PCs that are "naked," but, unlike Apple, they get to pay Microsoft two billion dollars a year for the privilege. That's sure to start at cat fight.

Phase 5. Plan B. All of the previous phases have the individual paying, in general, full retail for a copy of Vista or getting it pre-installed by Apple VARs for somewhat less. This will appeal to Microsoft and sustain their willingness to go along with Apple boiling their OS frog.

Let's take a guess and say that in the future the average price Microsoft gets for each Vista on Mac is $100. If, say, 20% of every Intel Mac ends up with Windows, and Apple is selling 7 million Macs a year in 2010, the Microsoft revenue will be about $140 million. Nothing to walk away from, but let's say they do. Let's say, under pressure from the other PC OEMs, Microsoft fiddles with Vista to make sure it won't install on an Intel Mac somehow. Could happen.

Then Apple might invoke Plan B. In four years, it may be realistic to think in terms of a robust Darwine for Vista. This is a software tool that allows Windows applications to run without the Windows OS. Again, a decision on whether Apple leverages off the current Darwine or brews their own version will be made in Apple's best interests. Microsoft could also try to counter this by technical or legal means. Things are murky at this point.

By then, however, the damage will be done. Mac OS X will have built its reputation as the savior and protector of the ghetto-ized Windows. (Again, I give credit to John Gruber for inventing this term.) It will affect the politics of the day.

None of the other PC OEMs is going to put up the resources to duplicate what Apple has achieved. They'll beg Microsoft to produce a "protected" version of Vista. Or they'll beg Apple to license Mac OS X. (Which Apple still won't do.) It'll be a critical point for the PC industry and Microsoft.

Opportunities for Apple will abound.

Now all this has been speculation. The time-line could be off, and Apple could possibly accelerate it as the market permits; or, different technologies could come along at different paces with different maturity dates to shuffle the order or delete some of these phases. Politics, partnerships, and mergers could shuffle the deck.

I don't have any inside knowledge; I just know that these kinds of technologies ignited by Boot Camp can often lead to projects in which Apple systematically develops technologies whose collective impact doesn't seem apparent at the outset. I've described just one possible scenario. The goal here is insight and perspective, not to predict the future.

The work of Steve Jobs isn't over yet, but one has to believe that events similar to the above could finally lead to fueling the fires of the final stage of the PC revolution. And then Steve can finally retire.