Microsofts EFI Pullback is Apples Gain

Opinion: The apples-to-apples comparisons between Intel Macs and Windows machines should take into account the benefits of Intel's Extensible Firmware Interface. However, EFI support by Microsoft is now delayed for one or two years.

The news that Microsofts support for the next-generation of BIOS, called the United Extensible Firmware Interface, will wait for a couple of years or so, was a welcome, but unexpected break for the Macintosh community.

The technology bragging rights against Windows and the commodity market for PCs can continue.

When Steve Jobs last year told the world that Apple Computer machines would run Intel processors, a collective sigh of defeat went through the Macintosh community. The pioneer spirit was dead.

Since the very first Mac hit the street in 1984, users and developers have been respectively proud and frustrated by the regular (aggressive) introductions of new hardware and software technologies to the platform.

The first fruits of the Apple-Intel partnership looked to be a mixed bag on the innovation front. Sure, the new iMac Core Duo and MacBook Pro ran Mac OS X and native applications faster than their progenitors—they had better!

And the pair have the usual excellent Apple industrial design that have put Macs into museum collections. But longtime Mac users expect all of this from their hardware.

On the other hand, the new MacBook Pros big new feature is MagSafe, a magnetic power connector that can keep your notebook on the table instead of being pulled onto the floor. Its novel and a great idea, but is it enough for Mac users to crow over?

Now, here comes Microsoft to the rescue.

Microsoft has pulled support for plain-ol EFI booting from Vista, and will now tie UEFI to future 64-bit-savvy updates to the OS due in 2007 or 2008.

Of course, its difficult to set the exact time frame because the initial release date of Vista itself keeps creeping backwards (or forwards depending upon ones view of the calendar).

According to Microsoft Watchs Mary Jo Foley, Microsoft said in February that Vista is feature-complete. But that promise doesnt mean that features wont be cut—rather, it just means they wont be added. So, goodbye EFI, Windows will see you in a couple of years.

"It cant be a technical problem [on Microsofts part]," said Robert Wise, vice president of product marketing at BIOS maker Phoenix Technologies, of Milpitas, Calif. "All the issues are business."

/zimages/1/28571.gifMicrosoft shuts Windows on new PC firmware. Click here to read more.

Wise said his company and the other firmware developers are all ready to go with EFI and UEFI support. "We could ship the firmware right now," he told me.

The biggest roadblock is the unwillingness of OEM system manufacturers. They are leery of using a new, more expensive firmware, something that would cut into their slim margins. And the supply chain for a new part could be shaky.

All of these sound like fine excuses—for manufacturers, not for users.

Apple, meanwhile, is supporting EFI in its new Intel-based Macs. This interface offers a standardized way for a PCs firmware—the underlying software that controls its hardware—to interact with its operating system and lets pre-boot applications run in the basement for tasks such as systems management or data recovery.

Also, important to the Mac market is EFIs handling of external booting, a longtime feature of the Mac OS, even for consumer systems.

EFI is supposed to make our systems more stable and fast. Apple credits the fast boot of its new Intel models to EFI.

EFIs benefits remind me of the Open Firmware booting used on the second-generation PowerPC-based Macs that were introduced about a decade ago.

Started by Sun Microsystems, the standard was blessed as IEEE 1275, and provided a processor and system-independent boot firmware. It was used on Apples PowerPC machines, as well as some Motorola and Sun systems.

But Mac users are long accustomed to the management and interface niceties provided by novel firmware and expansion ports. They are some of the reasons why Apples installed user base is so loyal.

For example, Apple was the first PC maker to incorporate SCSI in its machines (back in 1986), and even used it in notebooks. This worked faster than the parallel port on PCs, and the intelligent bus was better for moving the large files used by the Macs graphics applications.

However, it added to the cost of the box, and was therefore derided by a commodity-conscious market.

Certainly, boot intelligence enabled a very useful feature on the Mac called SCSI (and then later FireWire) Target Disk Mode. You can connect two Macs with a cable and by pressing the proper key sequence on reboot, one of the systems will open on the desktop as if it were an external hard drive. You gotta love it.

(Note to Windows users: Please dont confuse this with a peer-to-peer connection between PCs using a null-modem cable. The FireWire Target Disk Mode runs at FireWire speeds, not Ethernet.)

In so many ways, Windows users keep receiving the leftovers or technology hand-me-downs from the Macintosh. Longhorn looks to be more of the same, from the hardware to the software.

As Mac users gain the benefits of EFI over the next couple of years, Windows XP and Vista users wont. That is a simple equation, and one that Mac customers can cheer about.

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