The post-Windows world

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We’ve been writing about Windows a lot lately. The most recent example is this month’s “4 Ways to Windows” (page 42), in which Rob Griffiths compares four software tools that let you run Windows on the Mac.

The reason we’re writing so much about that other operating system is that Apple’s switch to Intel processors, and the consequent ability to run Windows on Intel-based Macs, has profound implications for the Mac. It could eradicate the Mac persecution complex once and for all, change the outright hostility that many Mac users feel for Windows into shoulder-shrug indifference, and make the Mac more popular than it’s been for a long, long time.

Trapped in a tiny box

Some Mac users harbor a pure hatred for all things Microsoft. A few refuse to use any Microsoft products on principle. (I can’t wait to see the letters we’ll get about putting an actual Windows box on the cover of Macworld !) Others don’t really mind Windows but simply find the Mac friendlier and easier to use.

Wherever you fall in the spectrum, you’ve likely experienced the frustration of knowing that, as a Mac user, some cool products are out of your reach. Perhaps it’s a new Web site that runs only in the Windows version of Internet Explorer, or a software program that has no Mac support, or an innovative piece of hardware that won’t work properly when you plug it into a Mac.

Now, that frustration has largely gone away. Almost every day now, I play a session of Diamond Mind, a baseball simulation that runs only on Windows. I’ve watched hours of free streaming video, using Netflix’s Watch Now feature, even though that feature is currently compatible only with Windows.

Is it inconvenient to switch into Windows to use these things? Sure it is. Should Web and software developers support the Mac natively, without making us switch between Windows and OS X? Of course they should. But some of them never will. From now on, that refusal doesn’t mean you can’t visit that Web site, run that program, or plug in that peripheral if you really want to.

Fear of abandonment

When the Intel Macs were first announced, many commentators said that it would mean the death of the Mac. Once Macs could run Windows, the reasoning went, developers would stop developing Mac versions of their software. That hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t see it happening on any huge scale anytime soon.

I take some comfort, for example, from a recently unearthed 1997 Microsoft memo. The memo was written during contract negotiations with Apple. In it, Ben Waldman (then the head of Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit) admits, “The threat to cancel Mac Office 97 is certainly the strongest bargaining point we have.” The threat has grabbed headlines. But if you read the memo, you’ll see something else: a group of software developers committed to making the best Mac product they can.

That commitment produced Office 98, an impressive release that righted a lot of the wrongs in the legendarily bad Word 6. Not only was Office 98 faster than previous versions, it was vastly more Mac-like. The failure of Word 6 taught Microsoft a valuable lesson: Mac users want to use software that works like the Mac, not like Windows.

That lesson still holds true today. The ability to run Windows software might give Mac users some flexibility. But if they liked the way Windows worked, they’d buy Windows PCs. Most Mac developers, including Microsoft, understand that. The ones who don’t have left the Mac market, and good riddance.

Where to next?

If Microsoft killed off Office for Mac now (and there’s no sign of that happening), it wouldn’t mean what it would have meant in 1997.

Back then, the loss of Office would have meant doom for the Mac. If it were to happen today, Mac users could simply run Office for Windows or a file-compatible competitor.

The people at Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit still have a strong commitment to releasing the best Mac software they can. The next version of Office will be Intel-native and compiled in Apple’s Xcode development environment, a sign that Microsoft has made a serious investment in the future of the Mac version of Office.

And in the meantime? We can run all our favorite Mac programs and whatever Windows ones we might need. Who else but Mac users can do that? Nobody, that’s who.

[ Got a comment? E-mail Jason or post a message in the Macworld forums. ]

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