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mac.column.ted: Apple's April Surprise: XP on a Mac!

mac.column.ted: Apple's April Surprise: XP on a Mac!

Ted Landau
April 2006

Wow! The Mac media was rife with speculation as to what Apple might announce to honor its 30th anniversary this month. What they did announce (which admittedly was not formally linked to the anniversary) wasn't on anyone's list?not even way at the bottom: Apple released a preview version of software that runs Windows XP on an Intel Mac! It's called Boot Camp. Buried in the announcement and related documentation were several more surprises. Let's take a look at what's going on:

Q. Why is Apple doing this?

A. The short answer: Because they can. Why shouldn't they? In my view, Apple has always been first and foremost a hardware company. That's as true today, even with the iPod, as it ever was. For example, Apple makes much more profit selling iPods than it does from the iTunes Music Store. So...if Apple winds up seeing a ten-fold increase in its Mac sales (I am being wildly optimistic here) as a result of Boot Camp, is Apple going to be upset that all these people may not be using Mac OS X? Of course not.

In any case, not many people will be buying a Mac to use it exclusively as a Windows machine. It's still cheaper to get a PC for that. What it may do is open the door for people who would like to try a Mac but can't afford to give up on Windows entirely. This could be huge. Even before this new development, Japan's Aozora Bank had just announced a switch from PCs to Macs.

Beyond that, I am sure Apple was aware of the intense interest that users, even dedicated Macs users, have shown in getting Windows to run on an Intel Mac. The most recent result of that interest has been the well-publicized discovery of how to install Windows on a Mac without any help from Apple.

My guess is that today's announcement from Apple pretty much puts an end to the unofficial Windows hack. With Apple's software, you can do it more easily and with less risk of harm to your Mac. Via Mac drivers that get installed, Boot Camp also offers better support for Windows working with Mac hardware, such as for AirPort and Bluetooth.

Q. Do you think this means that Apple might some day give up on Mac OS X altogether and just become sellers of Apple-branded Windows PCs?

A. I seriously doubt it. Mac OS X is what makes Macintoshes special. It's what makes Mac users committed to the platform. And my guess is that Apple would wind up selling fewer Macs as a purely Windows machine (competing against Dell, Sony, HP and all the rest) than they have been doing selling machines that just run Mac OS X.

Q. Did Apple create Boot Camp in response to the Windows hack?

A. Hardly. There hasn't been enough time. I am all but certain that Apple has been planning this all along. It may have pushed up the release of this Preview version a bit. But that's all. It's another example of how well Apple can still keep new projects a secret until they are ready to go public.

Q. What exactly does it mean that Boot Camp is a Preview version?

A. Three things: First, it is beta software. This means it may still have significant bugs in it (even more than the inevitable bugs that will still be there when it finally gets released for real). Second, it is time limited. That is, after a certain date, it will stop working (Apple's documentation states "Boot Camp Beta is preview software licensed for use on a trial basis for a limited time."). Third, Apple offers no official support for it (beyond the Web-based documents it posts).

Q. So when will the real version of Boot Camp be out?

A. As part of the Boot Camp press release, Apple announced that the software will be included with Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard). Leopard will be initially previewed at the WWDC in August. Given Apple's previous Mac OS X timelines, you can probably expect an official release of Leopard by January at Macworld Expo.

Q. Where does this leave Microsoft's Virtual PC?

A. Up in the air. Virtual PC, if it is ever revised to run on Intel Macs, will have one big advantage over Boot Camp: You will not have to reboot the Mac to run Windows. This means that you can easily switch back and forth between the two environments, even using copy and paste to copy text from a Mac document to paste into a Windows document (and vice versa).

Is this enough of an advantage for Microsoft to believe it is worth the time and money needed to develop an Intel version of Virtual PC? I don't know. But given Microsoft's prior reluctance to commit itself to a Virtual PC update, I have to believe that it is now even less likely that the update will ever see the light of day.

Also, although I have not seen benchmarks as yet, it's all but certain that running Windows under Boot Camp will be much faster than using Virtual PC. In fact, I expect Boot Camp speeds to be comparable to running Windows on a PC. After all, Boot Camp is not an emulation. The Mac truly is running Windows. This is potentially great news for those who have wanted to run PC-only games on a Mac.

Q. I have an Intel Mac. What do I need to worry about, besides downloading Boot Camp, to get Windows running on a Mac?

A. I have not tried to install Boot Camp as yet, so I can't provide a list of unexpected surprises that may occur (although other members of the MacFixIt staff, including our Editor have already installed Windows XP successfully on multiple Intel-based Macs and are tracking issues as we speak). But, just based on what I have read, I can alert you to the "expected surprises":

  • You will need a single disc version of Windows XP Service Pack 2. Nothing else will do. Period.

  • You will need to create a new partition on your drive. Fortunately, the Boot Camp Assistant software can do this for you?without having to erase the current data on your drive! This is a new feature from Apple. Previously, the only way to create a partition without erasing your drive was via third-party software. However, this new partitioning feature only works on drives that are currently a single partition. If you have already divided your drive into multiple partitions, you can't use Boot Camp Assistant to add another. Still, I believe you should be able to use any empty existing partition to install Windows.

    You can also use Boot Camp Assistant to remove the partition it creates, should you no longer want to use Windows on your Mac.

  • You must be using an internal drive. Boot Camp Assistant will not work with an external drive.

  • You will need to install a firmware update to get Windows XP to work. In another new first, Apple has additionally provided a way to restore your Mac to its original firmware. You do so via a Restoration CD, that you create and that somehow works even if the Mac currently has damaged firmware! But you can only do this if the firmware update failed for some reason. Apparently, you can not use the Restoration CD to downgrade from a successful upgrade.

    Note: If you previously modified your Mac to work with the Windows hack, you will need to erase your drive and start completely over before you can install the firmware update (as reported on MacFixIt).

  • When you are running Windows, you will be just as vulnerable to Windows-related viruses as if you were running a standard PC. However, the attacks should have no transfer effect to Mac OS X.

Apple is clearly fiddling with the EFI firmware built into Intel Macs to get all of this to work. However, it is still not releasing much in the way of details on this subject. Expect to see more about this in the weeks ahead, as hackers explore what is going on. I also expect that Apple will reveal much more at the WWDC this summer.

Q. Once I get everything installed, what do I have to do to get Windows to work?

Q. It's simple. Just hold down the Option key at startup. From the screen that appears, select the icon for the Windows volume. You can also use the Startup Disk preferences pane to select a default startup volume (Windows or Mac). There's even a version of Startup Disk that gets installed as a control panel in Windows.

Q. So...should I do it? Should I install Boot Camp today?

A. That depends. For most users, I would say no. Especially if you would be doing it just to experiment. Here's why: it's still beta software; Apple will offer no support if you have problems; and you have to do some potentially risky things to your Mac to get it to work (including partitioning the drive and installing a firmware update). Unless your drive is completely backed up and you are prepared to deal with a reinstall if things go wrong, I just wouldn't take the risk. However, for those users who are unfazed by such matters (which includes those who already tried the much more complicated third-party Windows hack!) or for those with a clear need to run Windows on a Mac, I say: "Sure, go ahead; give it a try."

When Leopard finally comes out, that will be the time for everyone to join the party. At the very least, it will be the last time Mac users will ever have to listen to someone say: "I would have gotten a Mac but I needed my computer to be able to run Windows."

This is the latest in a series of mac.column.ted columns by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

  • Boot Camp
  • announced
  • how to install Windows on ...
  • firmware update
  • Restoration CD
  • as reported on MacFixIt
  • click here
  • click here
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  • More from Mac Musings