Spending my summer in Boot Camp

Only Nixon could go to China, and only Jobs could give away a means of booting Windows on shipping Macs.

Amidst the vast quantity of misinformed speculation about Apple that has circulated in the last week, two things have reliably occurred:

1) Apple is getting front-page headlines.

2) Pundits are jumping up and down to declare the death or radical transformation of Apple as a company Mac OS.

Suffice to say, as a guy who makes his living using Mac OS, yes, I do have a game plan to learn more about Windows in the next eight months, but not because I’m going to be switching business models. It’s because I think I’m going to have to extend my business model.

Future Directions for Mac OS X

The first point worth addressing is the theory that this will be the death of Mac OS X because developers will only write for Windows and tell Mac users to use the Windows versions of their software. As one website replied, developers could also tell users to hit themselves in the head with hammers.

The existing Mac developer (and consulting) community has two good reasons to support Mac users: it’s profitable, and it’s enjoyable. I suspect that I have the mental chops to become a Windows consultant, but I just don’t like working with Windows the way I enjoy working with Macs. The professional support community won’t voluntarily stop working with Macs due to this quality-of-life issue, and they won’t be forced to make that switch unless working on Macs ceases to be profitable.

(This might be a good time to resurrect a hoary chestnut I’ve been telling for ten years. I did have to stop solely being a Mac consultant a decade ago in favor of being a Mac/Internet/database consultant. My independent Windows colleagues did very well for themselves with a roster of a dozen clients or so; my own similarly-sized roster of Mac clients didn’t pay nearly as well, because Mac clients simply didn’t need professional support as often. I think of this every time I see the phrase “total cost of ownership”.)

The death knell argument goes something like this, to quote an Engadget podcast I listened to recently: Rhapsody, the online music service, is Windows-only. Given that Mac users can “just boot into Windows” to listen to Rhapsody, the service has zero incentive to write a Mac version.

Excepting, of course, that booting into Windows requires shutting down all of the other applications you might be running. You have to really like Rhapsody in order to do that. It’s a viable strategy for mission-critical software, but it’s simply not going to fly for anything of lesser importance. Mac-based businesses that have software like that already have their one PC sitting over in the corner of the office, next to the last typewriter that they use for envelopes; Boot Camp just means that that computer won’t be replaced in the next upgrade cycle.

The ecosystem supporting both Apple and people who make their living on Apple hardware is going to continue apace. What’s changed is that the membrane separating us from the rest of you just became more semi-permeable. That is a fairly major change, but not one that’s going to adversely affect the health of our community. In fact, the more likely outcome is that this will completely change the landscape of the computing industry by 2008.

Windows for the Rest of Us

This is what a multiplatform environment looks like on a Macintosh, as of two weeks ago:

multiplatform thumb.png

Here you’ve got the three major operating system environments, side by side. iTunes is the native Mac software in the upper-left. Windows runs in emulation in its own window (actually, in emulated emulation; that’s a screenshot rather than Virtual PC). In the upper right, I have pan running under X11 using GNOME, which in turn uses the Aqua window manager to make those windows mostly interoperable with other Mac software. You can see the Mac Growl notification popping up in the upper right on top of the X11 window to tell me the newest song playing in iTunes.

If I wanted to, I could bring up a fourth environment, Mac OS Classic, where I could run OS 9 and earlier software, also in their own floating windows much like pan.

There are two interesting things to note about this setup:

1) X11, like Windows, normally ships in its own environment with OS widgets like desktops, file navigation, etc. If you like, you do have the option of turning this back on with Apple’s X11 implementation, and then switch back and forth (without rebooting) between both environments. But as with Classic, Apple shipped the much more useful system of allowing these windows to live side-by-side.

2) In fact, Apple has never shipped concurrent OS software for OS X that forced you to switch into multiple environments. The beta of X11 for Jaguar did require this, but the shipping version with Panther had the option.

Boot Camp, lest we forget, is in beta.

I’ll hasten to add that I have absolutely no idea what would be required to free Windows windows from the tyranny of an enclosing desktop. It might very well be impossible, or at the very least require too much horsepower to be usable. But we’re talking about the people who shipped a version of Unix that your grandmother can use. When it comes to Apple, I tend to redefine my outer limits of what’s possible.

This extends John Gruber’s idea that Macs are no longer different, they’re special. That is, buy an Intel Mac, and you can do anything you could do with a Dell or a Sony. And then some. Side-by-side windowing takes this further. Copy a picture out of iPhoto and paste it into Act!. iSync your Outlook calendar to iCal and publish it to .Mac.

If I really wanted to push this idea, I’d suggest the possibility of using Automator (an AppleScript utility that lets you write programs without knowing a single line of code) and Apple GUI Scripting (a framework that allows AppleScript to work with applications that don’t have their own AppleScript hooks) to give Windows users the ability to automate their software right out of the box, in ways that are impossible on a native Windows-only machine.

(Some of you may have noted that my side-by-side environment contradicts the argument I made earlier about Rhapsody. If this is how it plays out, I still think that Mac software will be written and developed, but it will have to continue to be better than the Windows equivalent. I expect that even in the most highly integrated environment, there will be programming hooks that allow you to do more in Mac native software than with Windows.)

Regardless of what Apple does here, there is one thing that I think is self-evident: Apple is going to do what it can to make Windows on a Mac better than Windows elsewhere. Windows on your MacBook Pro—a branding change that perhaps makes more sense now—is going to blow the doors off your Vaio. Somehow.

2007: A Mac Odyssey

Which brings us to the question of what Apple is going to ship with 10.5, and what it’s going to do to the computer industry.

The first one is a no-brainer: Apple is going to ship configurations that are preloaded with Mac OS X and Windows. After all, other companies are doing this already. And we can presume that Apple’s OEM Windows is going to have critical differences from the stock model, so perhaps with the right support options in place (i.e., same-day on-site service at any Apple Store), it might behoove switchers to buy Apple’s dual-OS system rather than just load in their existing copy.

The reverse case is a bit tougher; I’m trying to decide whether we’ll see an Apple-sanctioned method to run Mac OS on non-Apple hardware. This has also been done already, but there’s a big difference between hacking it together and using a version sanctioned by the mothership. Last year I theorized that Apple could do this by selling cheap copies of Tiger after Leopard is released, but Gruber has me rethinking this with his commentary that Apple makes money selling Macs, not software. I’m further rethinking this because by definition, Tiger will be a second-class experience after Leopard is released, and it’s not Apple’s style to pitch that, even as a loss-leader to entice people to buy Macs next time around.

That being said, it would be trivial to design the next version of OS X so that it does things on Mac hardware that it won’t do elsewhere, and to do the same thing with Apple’s OEM Windows release. (All such DRM would be hackable, but only by the elite; I don’t see this as a market barrier to differentiating Mac hardware by making the software more featuriffic.) So I do still see a market to allow Apple to siphon off the most profitable Windows customers (again, using Gruber’s thinking here) by giving them a dirt cheap way to play with Tiger, in the expectation that they’ll shortly thereafter upgrade their home and SOHO machines to get their hands on Leopard and iLife ’08, or whatever the latest-and-greatest turns out to be.

The requirement here is that Apple can’t be seen as selling a substandard solution for non-Mac hardware. If they think that’s the way it will play in the marketplace, they’ll never sanction this. But if their marketing people—who also have been known to pull off a few miracles—can come up with a way to sell this as the “cheap option which is better than what you have,” and the “better hardware option with the best and most flexible environment on the planet,” then that might be your cue to sell your stock in Dell.

Which brings me to my own game plan, as a Mac guru. I think that it’s a given that at some point shortly, my clients will be using dual-boot environments (at the very least), and it’s a safe bet I’ll be running one myself. (I am really looking forward to playing Half-Life 2 on my laptop.) I have very little doubt that there are individual Windows apps I’d like to use regularly in a side-by-side environment, and it’s my job to recommend to my clients the best tool for their needs. So I’ll be designing a crash course to become Windows-fluent between now and the release of Leopard. I anticipate (and I suspect Apple is anticipating the same thing) that time spent in Windows is going to be 10% pleasant interaction with useful software, and 90% wishing that I were back in my home environment.

But it’s what I think will be necessary in order to hit the ground running when Apple releases 10.5, because no matter what it can and cannot do, it’s definitely true that it’ll contain some interesting surprises.

[The Red and the Blue: Brian Greenberg disagrees with me eloquently and vociferously.]

One thought on “Spending my summer in Boot Camp

  1. Oh, jeez…

    Allow me to warn you now: there’s a Red & Blue-worthy response coming to this. I pecked out an outline on the train this morning, and just polished it off. The outline is 2,300 words long.

    Damn you, Porten! I thought I was going to get some sleep this week…

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