Apple Computer Inc. last week announced plans to begin selling computers based on Intel Corp. processors by June 2006.
While Apple developers initially looked upon Apples choice to move to Intel processors with mixed feelings, the ability of the new Macs to also run Windows—a practice long since adopted by some Mac users who run virtualization software such as Microsoft Virtual PC—may be the fulcrum for the company to gain some new customers, ranging from computer enthusiasts to businesses.
So far Apple hasnt discouraged the idea of running Windows on its forthcoming Intel gear. Meanwhile, Microsoft, sources familiar with the companys plans said, is considering how and whether to support Windows on the forthcoming Apple hardware as well.
Although it has no plans to license its OS X to other PC makers, such as Dell Inc., Apple will not prevent Windows and applications that run on the operating system from working on its future Intel-based Macs, company executives said.
That raises the possibility of companies or individuals creating dual-boot Mac OS/Windows machines in the future. However, many of the details of what it will take to allow Windows to operate directly on "Mactel" hardware, including Apples specific choices of Intel hardware and its software driver model, are still shrouded in secrecy.
"Apple doesnt plan to sell or support Windows," said Brian Croll, Apples director of software product marketing, during an interview at the companys Worldwide Developer Conference last week. But, he said, "Were not planning anything on the hardware side that would preclude it from running."
Croll declined to elaborate on Apples Mactel hardware or software plans.
"The focus right now is [on letting] our developers understand that they have to develop universal binaries" that work for PowerPC and Intel chips, he said.
Apple is expected to start by using Intels Pentium M chip, and to use EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface) versus a standard BIOS for waking up its processor and other hardware bits. But it has yet to detail whether it will use off-the-shelf Intel processors and chip sets or take another route.
Right now, the company uses standard IBM PowerPC 970FX chips and designs its own chip sets for them, analysts say. Having details on Intels hardware plans in hand, along with details on the software drivers for the systems, will be vital to getting Windows to run natively on Mactel hardware.
Running Windows as "a primary OS on [Mac/Intel] hardware is going to require OS support at the driver level. There may or may not be BIOS issues and that sort of thing," said Dean McCarron, analyst with Mercury Research. "Going off the assumption that the [Intel] Mac hardware is not a PC—that its their own layout hardware-wise—in order to make Windows run on that, its going to have to have the appropriate drivers."
This means that supporting Windows on Mactel would require Microsoft Corp. or others to gain in-depth knowledge of the Apple hardware, McCarron said. Apple would have to weigh the potential benefits of making its machines somewhat more attractive versus risking helping people who seek to use Mac OS X on other hardware.
Microsoft executives have already conducted internal meetings on what Apples move to Intel could mean. Microsofts thinking, according to sources familiar with its plans, is although Apple faces the potential for an initial dip in shipments following its processor switch, it ultimately could recover to gain a couple points in market share.
Thus it would seem like a simple decision for Microsoft to support Windows running natively on Apple hardware, given the software giants interest in boosting Windows market share. But there are several potential hang-ups, sources familiar with the companys plans said. If Apple uses non-standard hardware, such as chip sets or unique software drivers, it might not be cost-effective for the software giant to support Windows for Intel-based Mac, the sources said.
Indeed, Apple "could opt to make it (legally) impossible (through hardware or licensing, for example) to run Windows natively on their Intel hardware," said Peter OKelly, an analyst with Burton Group, in an e-mail. "I think that would ultimately be perverse and counterproductive, but weirder things have happened. Perhaps it will end up being passive support, as Sun has done with their Windows Certified servers—but for which Sun wont directly sell Windows Server."
Even if full hardware support isnt offered, theres a fallback position for more enterprising Mactel owners. Virtualization technology built into Intel chips—desktop Pentium 4 chips will sport built-in virtualization this year and the Pentium Ms will gain it next—will allow the machines to be partitioned to run numerous different types of software at the same time. Thus, there is no reason the machines couldnt run Windows or Linux and all of the associated applications on top of Mac OS X.
"In theory, you could run Windows on top of Mac OS, which is how it works on Mac today with Virtual PC," McCarron said. "The difference is, with hardware virtualization, youd be running at almost full speed. By and large youd end up with a full-speed virtual system."
Although its unlikely that an individual or a business would buy an Intel-based Mac and wipe its operating system just to install Windows, the capability could woo enthusiasts who might prefer Apples designs but still want to run Windows. It could also make it easier for others, such as educational institutions, government agencies, and small and midsize businesses, to choose Apple hardware.
The company has shipped about 3 million Macs in the last few years—it shipped nearly 3.3 million units in its fiscal year 2004, according to its annual report—so even a small increase could boost its fortunes.
"The enthusiast will buy it because its Apple," said Leslie Fiering, an analyst at Gartner Inc. However, "We think there will be a small cottage industry on hacking [Apple hardware] to run Windows on it," she said.
But, even with Windows on board, dont count on an upswing of sales to big business, Fiering said.
"Apple has been pretty explicit in saying that its not going to invest in supporting businesses [by offering things like PC life-cycle management]," she said. "Its just not going to do it."
Editors Note: Mary Jo Foley and David Morgenstern provided additional reporting for this story.