Mac’s Window of opportunity

by Roopinder Singh

IT is a window into a forbidden castle. Apple Computer has released Boot Camp, a software programme that will allow Apple Macintosh computers to run the Windows XP operating system and associated programs. For decades, Macintosh computers were castles with wide moats and drawbridges drawn up—they existed to the exclusion of the world around them.

Those inside the castle thought they had a secure environment in which their creativity would flourish. Macintosh computers were definitely for the right-brainers, the creative types. The left-brained, more mundane multitudes, had the IBM-compatible, Windows OSrun machines.

As we all know, creative, brainy kinds are rare; no wonder Mac has only 4-5 per cent of the share in the personal computer market. It has always been more expensive, but with that came elegance, and a special clubby feeling.

This has been a period of flux for Mac users, not the Heraclitian version that you can’t step into the same river twice, but the Osho reinterpretation that you can’t even step into the same river once, because the river and you are both changing constantly.

First, Steve Jobs announced in January that Mac computers henceforth would be Intel-based. Till now all Macs used Motorola chips and Intel and Windows were so closely knit together that the alliance was called Wintel.

Intel and Apple engineers have worked overtime to rewrite software codes that made this switchover possible and the results have been great
tailor-made software runs far better on the new Macs. As for the old software, it runs just as fast as it did before the changeover. No doubt, in time, popular desktop publishing software, which helped the Mac consolidate its position as a graphics computer and the frontrunner in the desktop publishing market, will be reworked to run on the new Macs.

Soon after this announcement in January, there were unofficial ways to work Windows on Macs. Recognising this inevitability, Apple has now released the Boot Camp software that can be freely downloaded. With Boot Camp, a part of the Apple hard-drive is converted into a Windows-compatible area, enabling it to run the operating system and various applications designed for it. Apple has made it clear that it will not support Windows and you have to buy your own software.

Windows on a Mac? Many Mac-users would agree with Newsweek columnist Steven Levy that It’s like Pepsi in a Coke bottle.” However, once the shock wears off, you realise that the taste might tickle the pallet differently. All said and done, the ingredients are not really that diverse, just put together differently.

The not-so-smooth flavour of Windows, here the prejudice of this writer is showing unabashedly, is offset by thousands of applications that run only on Windows, which will now also be accessible to someone who is using the new Macs.

This is a tremendous advantage, but it comes with some unwelcome baggage. The hitherto secure Macs will be open to virus attacks that plague Windows-run machines. Till now Mac users have been secure in their knowledge that there are less than a dozen viruses for Macs, but now their computers will be more vulnerable. How to combat this problem and its threat perception are topics much debated on the Internet these days.

Now that Apple computers can run on two operating systems, why not three? OS X is based on BSD, which is an off-shoot of Linux. Some Linux editions that work on Power PC Macs are already available, and in fact, most Linux variants that have been made for Intel machines can be tweaked to work on Macs now. While this would make Mac a unique machine, capable of working with three operating systems, how this would empower users and be attractive to them remains to be seen. After all, computers are just not tools.

Apple hit at the utilitarian perception of computers with its famous 1984 advertisement that showed a grey network of futuristic tubes connecting blank, ominous buildings. Inside the tubes were cowed subjects, except a young woman who hurled a hammer and shattered the TV image that showed a “Big Brother” addressing his subjects. A voice-over announced: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’.”

The way computers have been perceived has also changed. In the 1970, they were seen as tools designed for particular tasks. Within a decade they had been morphed into cool consumer products with which the aspirations and hopes of the consumers were tied up. A computer was something that empowered the individual, allowed a person to assert his identity, much as the Internet would do so, later.

Apple has always been good at identifying a vision of the future, but it lost out by not being open enough with its software. The new window into the Macintosh hardware could well turn to be a trapdoor that lures Windows users into a better environment. At least, that’s what Apple is betting on.

As for customers, we love choices, and for us it is not a “Pepsi in a Coke bottle” situation, but more like the Daimler-Chrysler one, in which top marques and hitherto rivals become one, to take advantage of each other’s strengths.

April 15, 2006