Apple Computer made headlines back in April when it said it would offer its own software----for loading Windows onto Macs. However, Boot Camp permits people to run only one operating system at a time, meaning either Windows or the Mac OS can be in use, but not both at once.
Around the same time, Parallels started testing for its Parallels Desktop program, which uses virtualization technology to have Windows programs operate alongside Mac applications. The Windows programs open in a separate window within the Mac OS.
Unlike past software that allowed Windows programs to run on a Mac, Parallels Desktop does not need to emulate the hardware that's inside a PC. That's because Macs and PCs now use the same Intel-based chips. As a result, the speed of Parallels is far better than past efforts at bringing together the two operating systems, the software start-up said. In fact, Parallels says Windows programs can run nearly as fast through its virtualization as running natively on a Windows PC.
"The difference in performance between Parallels and Boot Camp is negligible," said Parallels marketing manager Ben Rudolph. "Things move very, very fast."
Being able to run Windows programs is seen as a potentially significant catalyst for Mac sales. Needham analyst Charlie Wolf upgraded Apple's stock on Tuesday, saying that the combination of Boot Camp and programs like Parallels could help the Cupertino, Calif.-based company gain market share.
"The trigger for our upgrade is the prospect that a significant number of Windows users will switch to a Mac once it's able to run Windows applications," Wolf wrote in a report. He cited a survey by his firm, which found that in the U.S., some 8 percent of home PC owners would switch to a Mac if it could run Windows. "An increase of this magnitude would almost triple Apple's share in the home market and increase it 75 percent worldwide," Wolf wrote.
Put through its paces
The Parallels software has been in testing since April, and more than 100,000 people have tried it out, according to the company. Interest has come not only from hobbyists eager to try out Microsoft's operating system on their Mac at home, but also from governments, businesses and schools that want to have their Macs better able to converse in a Windows-dominated world.
Canada's University of Waterloo, for example, has been testing Parallels software. It plans to use it in the Mac lab of its environmental studies department so students can benefit from a number of programs that aren't available for Apple machines.
"I've been very impressed with the performance of it," said Don Duff-McCracken, a graphics and computer-aided design systems manager at the university. Duff-McCracken said he has been using the Parallels tool to run processor-intensive software, such as the World Construction Set software for rendering terrain.
Duff-McCracken compared applications in Parallels with the same ones running directly in Windows via Boot Camp. The performance in Parallels was within 1 to 2 percent of the other, he said. And both Mac-based options were faster than some recently acquired Dell machines the school had.
"It's running this sophisticated software at native speeds," he said.
While Boot Camp is essentially a tool for letting a Mac run either Windows or the Mac OS, Parallels makes both operating systems available at the same time. To do this, Windows runs as what is known as a virtual machine--essentially acting as if it was a separate PC.
Boot Camp, meanwhile, is still in beta, though Apple has said it will be part of Leopard, the next version of Mac OS X. The company is expected to outline Leopard's key features at a developer conference in August.
Parallels plans to eventually charge $79 for its software, though it is selling it for $49 for the next 30 days. It has been offering it for $10 less than that for beta testers who pre-ordered the final version.
A potential challenge for the start-up is that Apple may decide to offer, in addition to Boot Camp, a feature that acts more like Parallels in allowing Windows programs to run within the Mac OS. There has been speculation that Leopard might have such abilities.
Rudolph said Parallels can't spend its time worrying about what others might do.
"All we do is virtualization," he said. "Apple has got hundreds of different products. I believe we are going to have a faster, better solution regardless of what happens."
Herndon, Va.-based Parallels got its start when its two founders were doing freelance help-desk work. They found they had a knack for virtualization and came up with the software engine behind Parallels Desktop.
The company now has 75 employees, with more being added on a weekly basis, Rudolph said.
"We went from being a little tiny company to a little tiny company with a huge product," he said.
The company also has some venture funding, though Rudolph did not offer many specifics. "We definitely have enough money to keep the lights on for the next couple of years," he said.