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The multiple-OS Mac

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At some point in the not-too-distant future, most Macs—especially those in business and educational environments—will be running multiple operating systems, including Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. The question is, will the multiple-OS tools built into OS X be enough for you?

The virtues of virtualization

Virtual machine technology, or virtualization, enables the Mac to run any application, regardless of the operating system for which that app was written. It performs this trick by running one or more operating systems, each in its own “virtual machine.”

For most Mac users, virtualization has meant “running Windows software on a Mac.” Back in the 1980s, SoftPC, from Insignia Solutions, enabled Mac users to run DOS and Windows on 680X0 Macs, by emulating an Intel processor. Later, Virtual PC took over and allowed users to run multiple instances of Windows at the same time on one Mac.

Fast-forward to 2006, when Apple introduced its Intel-powered Macs. Because there was a real Intel processor inside these Macs, the need to emulate this kind of processor was gone. As a result, guest operating systems could run dramatically faster on a Mac. Apple took advantage of this by releasing a beta version of its Boot Camp software, which lets you install a copy of Windows on your Mac and then choose which OS—Windows or OS X—you want to use at startup.

Photo by Peter Belanger, contributing photographer.

The obvious flaw in Boot Camp’s design is that it’s not, in fact, running multiple operating systems: it lets you run only one at a time. You have to reboot your Mac if you want to use Windows. If you’re a gamer, that’s probably fine. But if you’re a businessperson who wants to pop into a Windows app for a second and then pop back out to OS X, or if you want to copy and paste data from a Windows app into OS X, Boot Camp is not the solution for you.

Parallels Desktop, which also came out in 2006, seems like the better answer. Unlike Boot Camp, it lets you run Windows apps in a window within OS X; you can then switch between the two operating systems quickly and easily. Like Virtual PC, Parallels Desktop lets you run multiple operating systems at the same time, so if you need to run, say, Linux as well as Windows while you’re running OS X, you can.

In 2007, Mac users will get an even better option. VMware is a veteran provider of virtualization software for other platforms. In late 2006, it was due to release a beta version of its first virtual machine product for the Mac. Like Virtual PC and Parallels Desktop, VMware’s software will let Intel-based Macs run multiple instances of Windows, Linux, NetWare, and Solaris as virtual machines at the same time they run Mac OS X.

But VMware’s software will do more than just run another OS on the Mac: it’ll also support virtual appliances —prepackaged virtual machines that come with applications and user settings already installed and configured. Using it, you could, for example, download an appliance that would let you put a ready-to-run Oracle software installation on your Mac. What might have once taken two days of configuration hassles will become a small matter of dragging and dropping a file.

Buying advice

Although Apple will bundle Boot Camp with Leopard, that won’t give OS X users anything they can’t get now with a simple download. And, as far as we know now, Boot Camp still won’t be able to run multiple operating systems at the same time. For a truly multi-OS Mac, the best Mac option for now remains Parallels Desktop. But keep an eye out for VMware for Mac—it could change the game.

[ John Rizzo is the publisher of MacWindows.com.]

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