Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Intel inside Apple logo
"[O]ne of life's most perplexing decisions – whether to buy a Macintosh or an IBM PC – can now be made with the greatest of ease." This hyperbole appeared in a 1985 ad for a pricey contraption called MacCharlie, a PC clone enclosure into which the original Macintosh slid, offering -- as the ad noted -- "the best of both worlds." MacCharlie, named in the days when IBM's PC business was represented by a Chaplain impersonator, was offered by Dayna Communications, a company that would enjoy a good run as a cross-platform solutions company before being purchased by, of all companies, Intel.
    
What had wrought this monstrosity? When Apple developed the Macintosh, it made a decision that would have long-term implications. Choosing Motorola processors over those from Intel meant that the Mac couldn't run DOS or Windows-based software at anywhere close to the speed of contemporary PCs. Sure, there had been a long history of slow software-based emulators dating from at least the first version of SoftPC for the Mac in 1988 and even a hardware solution that Apple offered with its Power Macintosh 6100/66 DOS Compatible in 1995, but it was hard to escape the realities of binary compatibility. The little ends did not justify the means.

Even with technology working against it, though, Apple had long sought to reach out to PC users through means such as encouraging popular ports (much fanfare preceded the sour notes of Lotus 1-2-3 for Mac), supporting PC-formatted media and eventually file extensions, promoting Microsoft Office for the Mac, adopting (or popularizing) PC standards such as IDE, USB and DVI Even in the post-iMac era, Apple launched its Switcher campaign with mixed success. Today, Apple's Windows outreach efforts focus primarily on its retail stores, where it can showcase the Mac's approach and ecosystem in person to the iCurious.

With Apple switching to Intel processors over the course of the year, though, one of the biggest traditional roadblocks to switching will be removed. Once some technical details are worked out, Mac users should be able to run at least Windows Vista at native speeds in a dual-boot configuration, or perhaps even Windows XP or Vista at nearly native speeds using virtual machine technology. You'd think, after tilting at this Win mill for over 20 years, Apple would open its arms to Windows users like prodigal sons.
Rather, the company's reaction toward compatibility with its long-time operating system rival has been so blasé that it's a wonder the Intel Macs' new startup sound isn't a yawn. Rather than emphasize that these new computers will soon offer, as MacCharlie sought, the best of both worlds, Apple simply assures that it won't do anything to prevent running Windows on them. Exhibiting such laissez-faire overlooks the best opportunity Apple has ever had to get PC users to switch. Finally, they will soon be able to take their applications with them and switch to Mac applications at their own pace.

Instead, Apple is touting the abstract speed improvement benchmarks of its recent heart transplant recipients. Not only have its claims been challenged by independent publications such as Macworld, but such a dramatic speed improvement would have limited impact on most Mac users, who value the computer's ease and integration above raw performance.

Professional users, for whom speed is more important, will have to wait until at least Apple's programs are ported to see benefit. And Mac staple third-party applications such as Photoshop may still require months before they are available as universal binaries. Windows Vista may even ship before such a binary is ready, in which case the fastest version of Photoshop on Intel-based Macs may run under Windows.

A relatively small percentage of Mac users will be interested in running multiple operating systems, but many of them represent potential customer wins. Clearly, there's a limit to how warm an embrace Apple can extend to an operating system with which it competes and satisfying its installed base comes first, but the company should be more aggressive if it can supply a solution at the expense of Dell or HP.

Perhaps Apple will surprise us at its Worldwide Developers Conference with an update that enables Windows to run now. The next version of its operating system, known as Leopard, might include functionality to ease a dual-OS configuration. However, it seems just as Apple is on the cusp of providing its strongest migration proposition to Windows users, it's rolling up the welcome mat.
    
Maybe the journey was the reward.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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