Analysis: Setbacks won't stop Dual-boot Mac efforts

A Mac that can boot into either Mac OS X or Windows sounds attractive to some users. Efforts continue to create a dual-boot Mac, even though Microsoft recently announced that Windows Vista won’t work with Mac hardware at least until it ships the server version of its next major operating system release — due sometime in 2007.

The possibility of a dual-boot system first came to light after Apple announced its switch to Intel CPUs at last year’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). The “Developer Transition Kit” systems that were to give Mac software programmers a leg up on creating software to work on the new machines worked with both Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Apple’s Mac OS X. So, some posited, the real Intel Macs would work the same way.

Apple’s comments since then haven’t done much to dissuade people from that assumption. Company executives have said that Apple wouldn’t do anything to prevent users from installing Windows on a Mac. But at the same time, Apple hasn’t done anything to actively help Mac users to do so, either. That became readily apparent when the first Intel-based Macs shipped.

These new Macs are different from Developer Transition Kit systems because they incorporated Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI)—a technology that bridges a connection between the operating system software and the computer’s firmware.

About EFI

EFI is not a new technology—it’s been around since the late 1990s, but it’s something that the PC world hasn’t seen on a lot of desktop systems. Instead, those computers use something called Basic Input/Output System, or BIOS for short.

As it turns out, out of the box, EFI-based systems like our Macs can’t install or boot using Windows XP. And wouldn’t you know it? We won’t be able to run Vista when that’s ready, either—at least not initially.

Leave it to Apple to be on the cutting edge. For now, EFI is something that’s only found on server computers in any quantity in the Windows world, so that’s why Microsoft plans to support it when the company finally gets around to shipping the server version of Vista, its next major operating system upgrade.

Vista won’t be ready until later this year. Microsoft plans half a dozen different versions of the operating system, and the server iteration of Vista isn’t expected until sometime in 2007. That means that we’ll be waiting a long time before we see a version of Vista that could potentially run on the Mac.

No 32-bit support

Microsoft made it clear at last week’s Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco that EFI support won’t be forthcoming in any version of Windows designed to work on 32-bit microprocessors. That could be a big problem for users of Intel-based Macs who want a dual-boot machine, since the Intel microprocessors featured in Apple’s new iMac, MacBook Pro and Mac mini are 32-bit.

Windows server hardware increasingly uses a 64-bit microprocessor architecture that will work with the new server version of Vista, however. And if Apple adopts 64-bit Intel microprocessors in its future Macs, those devices might conceivably be able to dual-boot Windows and Mac OS X.

If you’ve invested in an Intel Mac and Windows interests you, don’t give up hope yet. The race is on to make Intel Macs run Windows, and Mac OS X Internals author Amit Singh claims to “have made good progress with booting an unmodified Windows XP installation” on a Mac using BAMBIOS — a new software application that emulates the BIOS operations of a PC-compatible computer.

He’s not the only one — a reward has been posted for details on how to shoehorn Windows XP onto an Intel Mac, and as this article was posted on Macworld , a user claims to have done it. Time will tell whether this is the case.

Whither emulators?

Outside of telling users that Virtual PC 7 doesn’t work on Intel Macs, Microsoft is fairly close-lipped on the subject, saying only on its Web site that “We are working with Apple to determine the feasibility of developing Virtual PC for Mac for Intel-based Macs.” According to Microsoft, Virtual PC is highly dependent on the hardware and will require additional development to work on Intel machines.

Lismore Software Systems hasn’t indicated if or when it’ll release an Intel-compatible version of Guest PC, its commercial PC emulation software for Mac OS X.

That hasn’t stopped other software makers from getting Windows working on the Mac by emulating the inner workings of a PC-compatible computer. OpenOSX, for example, has repackaged the open-source Qemu virtual machine emulator to run natively on Intel-based Macs, and has included several variations of Unix and Linux to run with it—that emulator also runs Windows, if you’ve purchased it separately. In addition to Qemu, several other emulator-based open source projects either have or plan to offer Intel-native versions.

None of them, however, perform at anything close to “native” speeds on an Intel-based Mac, and all of them are limited by the same major bottleneck that Virtual PC suffers from—no native 3-D graphics acceleration.

That’s why so many people are holding out hope that there’s still a way to get Windows to run “natively” on an Intel-equipped Mac — they’re looking for a solution that provides better performance and compatibility than what’s currently available.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention gamers here. Gamers have long hoped for a Mac that could play Windows games. If a way is figured out to run Windows on a Mac with good performance and with 3D graphics acceleration intact, it might put a serious damper on the commercial Mac game market publishing market, which is very dependent on PC game conversions, or ports.

Never say no

So, to recap: Microsoft’s thrown a few wrenches in the works, and Apple’s positively ambivalent about people running Windows on their Macs. Despite that, a lot of enterprising people are investing a lot of time and effort to make it happen.

And while there are working solutions in the form of emulators, the methods that others have used or proposed to make Windows operate on Intel-based Macs hold lots of promise for the holy grail of many Mac users — a reliable, user-friendly computer designed by Apple that runs Mac OS X, but isn’t held back by lack of software compatibility with the world’s most popular operating system.

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