Apple gives its blessing to Windows on Macs

Last month, when a few enterprising hackers won a contest by enabling Windows booting on Intel-based Macs, one of the first comments I read in our forums was: “How long until Apple cripples this hack with a system software update?”

Turns out, Apple could’ve won that $13,854 if it had just released Boot Camp a month earlier. Instead of crippling a hack, Apple has released a legitimate version that does what the hack did — and in true Apple fashion, a whole lot more.

Unlike the winning hack, which required some seriously geeky tricks, Boot Camp walks you through the process: it dynamically resizes your startup disk’s partitions to create a new one for XP (no reformatting required), automatically burns you a CD full of Windows drivers for Intel-based Mac hardware, and then reboots you into Windows to start the installation procedure.

Apple’s integrated the concept of booting into Windows into the Startup Disk preference pane: Windows volumes now appear in the list of bootable volumes. And Boot Camp even installs an Apple-written Windows utility that lets you set the default startup disk when you’re running Windows, too. You can even hold down the Option key when you start up the Mac, and as always, you’ll be provided with a list of bootable volumes — but now your Windows volume will appear in the list there, too.

How it works

Basically, Apple seems to have taken the same approach as the contest-winning hackers. The big problem in getting Intel-based Macs to boot into Windows is that they use EFI, a start-up technology that isn’t supported by Windows. Boot Camp allows EFI to communicate with Windows in a language that Windows understand.

What Apple has added to the party is an almost complete set of drivers, meaning that Windows XP should run on the Intel-based Macs at full speed. (The major bugaboo about the hacked approach to booting XP on Mac was that numerous hardware drivers weren’t available, meaning that some Mac hardware features simply didn’t work, while others worked at dramatically reduced speeds.) I say almost complete because Boot Camp doesn’t install any drivers that would let Windows use the iSight video camera or the Apple Remote.

Just as with the hackers’ method, installing Windows still requires you to actually buy a copy of Windows. Boot Camp will work with Windows XP Service Pack 2, either Home or Professional editions. (And keep in mind that since you’re not upgrading an old PC, you’ll need to buy the full version, not the upgrade.)

Also, there’s the thorny issue of file sharing. If you format the Windows partition using the FAT32 format — which can’t support files larger than 4 GB — your Mac can see the drive and even copy files to it. But if your Windows partition uses the NTFS format, which allows larger partition sizes, the Mac can see files, but can’t write to the drive. What’s worse, Windows XP can’t read from or write to a Mac partition without the use of special software such as Mediafour’s MacDrive.

Hell freezes over

I’m more excited about Boot Camp than I was about the hackers’ method, mostly because this is something that regular computer users can do — it’s a simple installation method that doesn’t require any of the reformatting or file-tinkering that made the hackers’ method one for serious geeks only.

As I said last month, this is good news for Mac users because many of us have to use Windows, at least occasionally, and for occasional use, running Windows on a Mac beats having to buy a separate PC. And Apple obviously feels that Boot Camp is ideal for potential Windows switchers, because it eliminates a huge barrier to switching: namely, that they might have to run one or two Windows programs from time to time.

That said, I’m hoping that there’s another shoe yet to drop — either from Apple or by way of Microsoft. Because while rebooting into Windows solves numerous compatibility issues, it also means that you can’t run Mac OS X while you’re in Windows. If you need to switch back and forth between Mac and Windows applications, a dual-boot system will not boost your productivity, because you’ll be starting at boot screens half the time.

That’s why I believe most people would prefer to run Windows simultaneously, in a compatibility box much like Microsoft’s Virtual PC — except without all the slowdowns of emulation. I’ve tried several Windows-in-a-box programs for the Intel Macs in the past few weeks, but none of them really work well, at least not yet. I hope that either a version of Virtual PC for Intel Macs is forthcoming, or that Apple will add Windows-in-a-box support directly into Mac OS X Leopard.

In the meantime, though, the ability to run Windows natively on Mac hardware opens up a lot of possibilities. Switchers will be reassured. Mac users won’t have to clutter their offices with PCs just to run a couple of mandatory tasks.

Last month, I thought that the ability to run Windows on Intel-based Macs was a good thing. It’s good to see that Apple thinks so, too.

(Corrected 4/5 at 1:05 p.m. ET to correctly state the major limitation of FAT32.)

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