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The ability to run Windows natively on Mac hardware isn’t the end of the Mac’s unique place in the world. In fact, it’s just the beginning. The future will bring countless possibilities for both Windows-to-Mac converts and longtime Mac users like you and me.

When Apple first announced that it would ship Intel-based Macs, company executives said that they wouldn’t prevent anyone from figuring out a way to run Windows on those computers. Then came the release of Boot Camp (see Mac Beat, page 18). Now not only can Intel-based Macs run Windows, but Apple is giving you the software to do it.

Is it good?

Since this is Macworld, let’s stipulate that Mac OS X is a better operating system than Windows. But the fact is that many Mac users have to use Windows, at least occasionally. Maybe your company requires you to use specific Windows apps or visit Web sites that don’t support the Mac. Or maybe there’s a program you want to use that simply won’t run on the Mac.

Historically, you’ve had two options: run Microsoft’s Virtual PC emulator or hide a PC under your desk. Now, with Boot Camp, you have a third: run Windows software on your Mac.

But don’t forget that Boot Camp only lets you reboot into Windows. When your Mac is running Windows, OS X is completely gone. If you want to switch back and forth between Mac and Windows applications, you’ll spend a lot of time staring at boot screens.

That’s why I think another shoe will drop. Either Microsoft will update Virtual PC to run on Intel-based Macs, or Apple will integrate virtual-machine technology into OS X 10.5. Or even better, Apple will build Windows-in-a-window support into OS X, and Microsoft will build support for Mac-specific hardware into its upcoming Windows Vista OS. That would make using Windows on a Mac more like using Classic.

Who’s it for?

Windows compatibility isn’t just for Mac users forced to use Windows occasionally. It’s also for Windows users who might like to switch to the Mac.

For years, the world has told Windows users that the Mac is weird and—worst of all— incompatible . The option of running Windows on Mac hardware gives them a safety net: They know they can always go back to Windows if they run into a problem.

Will these people actually buy a Mac and then use it to run Windows? I doubt it. For many such switchers, it will be enough to know that they can always install Windows if they need to—but they never will. Others will install Windows and then eventually realize that they can’t remember the last time they used it.

Is it bad?

Some Mac users and pundits complain that Boot Camp signals the end of the Mac as we know it. Now that Macs can run Windows programs, they argue, developers won’t want to write Mac software anymore. I disagree. If Mac users wanted to run Windows apps, we wouldn’t be Mac users—and developers know it.

The transition from OS 9 to OS X cleaned out the last of the companies who weren’t really committed to the Mac. In fact, I bet that some companies that make Windows-only apps will discover what great customers Mac users are and release Mac-native versions of their apps for the first time.

The one exception might be hard-core PC games, which don’t really even let on whether you’re running Windows or OS X. I can see game developers not bothering to port those games to the Mac. But more casual games—the Sims series, for instance—will probably continue to be successful on the Mac.

The most chilling part of the Windows-on-Mac story is the fact that Windows attracts viruses, spyware, and other evils like honey attracts bears. By default, Windows can’t see what’s on your Mac-formatted drive volume. Maybe that’s a good thing—because it means a malicious PC virus can’t do ugly things to your Mac files.

But if you do install Windows, be sure to install a virus checker and keep it up to date. Rebooting into Windows means moving into a dangerous neighborhood—so be prepared.

Is it still a Mac?

In a world where iMacs can run Windows XP, what makes a Mac a Mac? The answer is the same as it’s always been: Apple’s combination of great hardware design and great software. Your Mac is still a Mac. That it can also be a PC—that it’s the only computer that can run Windows XP and Mac OS X—just shows how versatile it really is.

Do you ever use Windows apps? Will you be installing Boot Camp? Share your thoughts in our forums, or e-mail me. And don’t miss my Weblog.

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