Analysis: Why Jobs praised virtualization apps

Steve Jobs typically uses his keynotes to tout Apple products and technologies. And this week’s Worldwide Developers Conference speech was no exception, with the iPhone, Safari 3, and, especially, Leopard all receiving their share of attention from the Apple CEO.

But Jobs also had praise for two other products that not only aren’t made by Apple but seemingly compete with a major component of OS X 10.5. When profiling Boot Camp, the Apple-built application that lets Intel-base Mac owners install and run the Windows operating system on their computers, Jobs singled out two virtualization programs that essentially do the same thing.

“Boot Camp’s pretty amazing,” said Jobs of the cross-platform software that will be included with Leopard when that OS X update ships in October. However, to run Windows XP or Vista via Boot Camp, users have to exit OS X and reboot into Windows; in virtualization programs like Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion, the virtualized OS runs as a process within OS X. In other words, users can run Windows and OS X alongside one another.

For that reason, Jobs told keynote attendees, Boot Camp is “a great complement” to Parallels and VMWare. “There are three great ways to run Windows on a Mac,” the Apple CEO added.

Room for everybody

Jobs’ comments are significant because they indicate that rather than corner the market on programs that allow Macs to run Windows, Apple is perfectly happy to leave the burgeoning virtualization market to third-party developers. That, in turn, signifies, that Apple sees cross-platform applications as a critical area for the Mac, and that the more developers offering solutions, the healthier the market will be.

What’s more, embracing different approaches for bringing Windows to Mac hardware lets Windows users know that there’s another way for them to get their work done. Switching to a new operating system is not as simple as just buying a new machine and starting it up. There are lots of considerations that have to be made, for business and home users alike. Being able to switch back and forth between the Mac and Windows via programs like Boot Camp, Parallels, and VMWare Fusion, gives Apple’s targeted switchers one less reason to not try the Mac.

“I think it was pretty big shift for Apple,” said Ben Rudolph, director of corporate communications at Parallels. “It really was the first time they said if you need to run Windows here you can. Windows is important whether you’re a Mac person or not, and they have a large user base. It shows Apple is not afraid to embrace Windows and that’s a good thing for users.”

The figures certainly seem to suggest that there’s a demand for these programs. VMWare reports 200,000 downloads of its VMware Fusion public beta and Parallels said there are 500,000 active users for its product. During his WWDC keynote, Jobs reported that the Boot Camp beta has been downloaded 2.5 million times since its 2006 debut.

Inside virutalization

Virtualization is a different technology than what Mac users were used to with emulation products like Microsoft’s Virtual PC (which the software giant killed on the Mac platform last year). Emulation programs emulate the processor and every step of running an operating system on the Macintosh. Virtualization actually uses the Intel hardware on the Macintosh, creating a virtual machine that takes advantage of everything the hardware has to offer. The resulting increase in speed helps users run PC software just as fast on the Mac as on a Windows machine.

“Some users probably have a faster PC running a virtual machine on the Mac than they had with their PC hardware,” said Pat Lee, senior product Manager for Mac products at VMware. “These are very fast Intel-based machines.”

Being able to run Windows alongside the Mac OS provides virtualization programs with another advantage, particularly for users who only need to run a Windows program once in a while.

“It’s really cool when people utilize both operating systems,” Rudolph said. “They slowly start learning what they like in both OSes and use what works best for them.”

It was not out of the realm of possibility that Apple would allow some type of native virtualization using its own Boot Camp solution, but that didn’t happen. Apple chose to keep Boot Camp functionality in the OS X 10.5 version much the same as it works today, requiring a reboot to run Windows.

“I was 95 percent sure they would not do their own virtualization solution,” Rudolph said. “The main reason is that I don’t know how much Apple wants to support Windows or other OSes. However, If anyone could do it, Apple could.”

Both Rudolph and Lee agreed that virtualization is a fast growing market and that Apple is helping their respective products flourish. Ultimately, Parallels and VMWare cannot control what Apple decides to do with Boot Camp nor Mac OS X Leopard and neither company is dwelling on it, instead focusing on their products.

“There are some things I can control, others that I can’t,” Rudolph said. “What I can control is the quality of our products.”

Lee agreed. “Our goal is just to release a great products,” he said.

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