How Virtual PC (Still) Helps Apple

Rothenberg: Microsoft's purchase of the Windows compatibility software may spark some Mac paranoia, but it could be a win for the Mac platform.

I cant leave you folks alone for a minute, it seems! No sooner do I abandon my post as house Mac pundit for a weeks vacation from the Northeastern cold than Microsoft directs a stream of kerosene onto the eternal flame of Mac platform loyalty.

Im referring, of course, to last weeks surprise announcement that the Redmond giant has acquired the virtual machine technologies of Connectix Corp. That roster includes Virtual PC, long the pre-eminent application for running Windows on the Mac and a crucial element in assuring the Macs ability to work and play well with the dominant desktop platform.

The move apparently spells the end of the line for Connectix as a Mac developer, a role it has played since its first product launched in 1989. In an interview with eWEEKs Peter Galli, Connectix CEO and President Roy McDonald notes that while the company has retained two Mac applications—DoubleTalk for Mac-PC networking and the recently discontinued RAM Doubler—both are "heading toward obsolescence" as the company focuses on enterprise software.

While Apple Computer historically made a few stabs at rolling its own PC compatibility (viz. the various models of 680x0-based Mac LC, Quadra and Performa models that shipped with a "DOS Compatibility" card, and the shelved plans for a PowerPC 620 Mac that could go native with PC instructions), it has largely left the chore of Windows compatibility to third parties—primarily Connectix. With this deal, the torch is passed to Microsoft, the Goliath in the desktop platform wars and Apples only real target when it comes to carving out market share from the installed base of end users.

Ill confess that the prospect of Microsoft suddenly assuming control of this essential aspect of Apples destiny afforded this longtime Mac booster and buyer a brief frisson of worry. Ive watched enough Frankenheimer flicks to indulge in a little of the anxiety voiced by some members of the Mac community: Despite Microsofts claims that its move was motivated primarily by a desire to run old-school Windows NT 4 business applications within a virtual machine, is it really looking to squeeze its way into those last few digits of desktop market share controlled by Apple?

Come to think of it, the answer to my rhetorical question is "Of course!" This is Microsoft were talking about, and the company does want to be everywhere: in your wristwatch, in your dashboard and on your Mac. But I dont see Mac extinction as the goal; rather the opposite.

Unlike Apple—the last diehard vendor of integrated PC software and hardware—Microsoft is a software company. The more sales of Microsoft-branded system and application software it achieves, the better, and it doesnt matter a whit whether its customers choose to run that software on their Intel PCs, their Macs or their dishwashers.

I wouldnt characterize Microsoft as a great technological innovator—the company has been far more inclined to let the Connectixes of the world break the engineering ground, then buy its way into the building. However, Microsoft is unrivaled in its ability to throw critical mass at a project it wants to succeed—and I believe it has every reason to want Virtual PC to continue to thrive.

Since Apple and Microsoft publicly mended fences at the outset of Steve Jobs current stint at Apple, Microsofts Mac Business Unit (which now assumes control of Virtual PC) has generally been an honest broker of Mac applications.

While Microsofts Mac apps may not be every users cup of tea for every occasion, the company has been right on the front lines when it comes to adopting the latest Mac technologies, specifically in Apples all-important migration to Mac OS X. And despite some bickering over sales figures, the group has worked and played well with Cupertino when it comes to joint marketing.

Theres plenty of creative friction, to be sure—just consider Apples Macworld Expo/San Francisco announcements of its own alternatives to Internet Explorer and Microsoft PowerPoint. Nevertheless, the Mac remains a diminutive but productive cash cow (and a reliable hedge against lingering arguments about its desktop monopoly).

In that light, the prospect of Microsoft putting its muscle behind the already admirable Virtual PC could be good news for Mac-o-philic end users like me—and a boon for Apple itself.

Watching Microsoft control the destiny of Windows on the Mac might roil platform orthodoxy among some Apple partisans, but Microsoft is at heart a secular company single-mindedly focused on promoting its agenda of "Microsoft everywhere," by any means necessary. Those who question that goal might look askance at this latest acquisition, but it certainly doesnt equal Mac extinction.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is managing editor of Ziff Davis Internet.

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