Windows: The New Classic

“Holy shit!” seemed to be the consensus reaction to Boot Camp’s debut yesterday; it was my reaction, at least. But like many seemingly shocking announcements from Apple in recent years, after just a few hours, it now seems so… obvious.

As of just two days ago, though, it certainly didn’t seem like an obvious move for Apple to officially or semi-officially support dual-booting between Mac OS X and Windows on Mac hardware. It was just a few weeks ago that awarded over US$13,000 for a completely unofficial not-for-the-faint-of-heart hack to get Windows XP running on Intel-based Macs. (I’m guessing many people who pitched money into that prize pot regret it now.) And it brings me no small amount of glee to point out that coverage of Boot Camp at Think Secret and AppleInsider only appeared after Apple announced it. Waiting for the press release is certainly one way to raise the accuracy of their rumor coverage.

If Apple had released Boot Camp a few days earlier on April 1, I suspect most people would have thought it to be a gag, à la Google’s 2004 April 1 announcement of Gmail (“1 GB of email storage for free? This is a gag, right? Right?”).

But now that it’s here, Boot Camp does seem like an obvious move for Apple, no? It’s a low-risk, no-lose proposition for them, and but the potential upside is huge.

The old equation — decades old — is that most computers ran Windows (or, if you go back far enough, DOS) and some other ones, the ones from Apple, ran Mac OS. As of today, the new equation is that all computers can run Windows, but some, the special ones from Apple, also run Mac OS X. (Including other PC operating systems like the various Linux distributions doesn’t really change the equation.)

The distinction between these two equations may strike you as subtle, but the difference is potentially momentous. The point is that it recasts Macs from being “different” to being “special”. Instead of occupying a separate universe from that of PC hardware, it’s now a superset of PC hardware. Instead of choosing between a Windows PC or a Mac — which decision, as I wrote recently, for most people is more accurately stated as “choosing between a familiar Windows PC or an unfamiliar Mac” — you now get to choose between a computer that can only run Windows or a computer that can run both Windows and Mac OS X.

I.e. anything a regular PC can do a Mac can do, plus a Mac can do something regular PCs can’t: run Mac OS X properly and legitimately.

This move extinguishes several of the qualms that prevent many would-be switchers from actually getting off the fence and buying their first Mac. Namely, the “I’m not comfortable switching to a computer I’m wholly unfamiliar with” rationale. Boot Camp gives switchers a comfortable out if they wind up not liking or in any way regretting their switch to Mac OS X: they can use their Mac as a bona fide first-class Windows box.

The Boot Camp Target Market

Boot Camp is not about world domination or a direct frontal assault on Microsoft’s Windows monopoly.1 No matter how cool Boot Camp is, it’s not even going to make sense to most people out there, let alone actually get them to buy a Mac. You try explaining “boot loaders” to your mom.

But Boot Camp is inordinately appealing to the higher end of the market, the enthusiasts. Your typical civilian (i.e. non-enthusiast) has no need — or at least sees no need — for dual booting. They use email, they use a web browser, they want something useful to happen when they plug a digital camera into their USB port. Whichever OS comes on their computer is good enough for this.

But there are all sorts of uses for Boot Camp for nerds. Any sort of Windows-only software, for example, is no longer an excuse not to buy a Mac. Like, say, games. And for many of these people (i.e. the enthusiast/nerd/”into computers” market) using Boot Camp is free because they already have Windows XP installation discs sitting around.

All Apple needs to do to be spectacularly successful with its computer business in the next few years is to take just a few single digits of market share away from Windows. Whatever market share number you peg the Mac at — 2 percent, 5 percent, or anywhere in between — you must keep in mind that it (that is, the Mac user base) is not comprised of a random sample of just any 2-5 percent of computer users in general. It’s a very specific self-selecting segment of the market: people who care about their computers, and who are willing to pay more for something better.

So even if Apple only has 2 percent of the total market today, it’s 2 percent from the best part of the market. And if they add another percentage point or two or three, that’s going to come from the juicy part of the market as well. (I’d wager a large sum that Apple’s share of the profits in the total PC industry are significantly higher than their share of units sales.)

For people in the market for a new laptop and who are at least somewhat curious about Mac OS X, what reasons are there now not to buy a MacBook? (Feel free to use your imagination to fast-forward a few months to a time where Apple has a range of MacBook models available.) The primary reason (not to buy a MacBook) that comes to mind is “Well, I can save a few bucks with another brand,” but Apple doesn’t really want customers like that anyway — people who shop primarily based on price are generally lousy customers.

I’m reminded of this snippet from John Siracusa’s lovely essay marking the fifth anniversary of Mac OS X 10.0:

After spending half my life watching smart, talented people ignore the Mac for reasons of circumstance or prejudice, it’s incredibly gratifying to live in a post-Mac OS X world. When I encounter a tech-world luminary or up-and-coming geek today, I just assume that he or she uses a Mac. Most of the time, I’m right. Even those with a conflicting affiliation (e.g., Linux enthusiasts) often use Apple laptops, if not the OS.

That’s the momentum and the market that Boot Camp will help keep growing.

Relishing the Comparison

Let’s look at what Apple has done here:

  • Updated the firmware for Intel-based Macs, presumably to emulate BIOS. As Apple says on the Boot Camp product page:

    EFI and BIOS
    Macs use an ultra-modern industry standard technology called EFI to handle booting. Sadly, Windows XP, and even the upcoming Vista, are stuck in the 1980s with old-fashioned BIOS. But with Boot Camp, the Mac can operate smoothly in both centuries.

  • An in-place disk partitioning utility that allows you to create a FAT-32 or NTFS disk partition on your startup drive without reformatting the entire disk. The utility carves out 10 GB or more from your existing HFS+ partition (assuming you have enough free space) and leaves your existing data intact. This sounds obvious — if you had to wipe your entire startup drive as part of the partitioning process it’d keep a lot of people from even trying Boot Camp — but this has proven to be a very difficult problem. There are other third-party utilities that can do this, but I’m not aware of any that come free with an OS.

    [Update: Several readers have complained that this just isn’t so, that numerous — perhaps even most — Linux distributions now ship with in-place disk partitioning tools.]

  • A new boot chooser that appears when you boot your machine while holding down the Option key, which boot chooser sports a nifty OS X-ish visual appearance (as opposed to the decidedly OS 9-ish appearance of the old “which startup folder/disk do you want to use?” chooser). [Update: A couple of readers have emailed to point out that the new startup boot chooser appearance has been there all along with the Intel-based Macs, and isn’t new to Boot Camp or yesterday’s firmware updates. That’s what I get for not having an Intel-based Mac.]

  • An updated Startup Disk system prefs panel that allows you to select your Windows partition as your default system, as well as a Windows version of the Startup Disk prefs panel so you can do the same from Windows.

  • A slew of Windows drivers for the hardware in these Macs. Judging from first-day accounts, AirPort, audio, and Mac-specific keyboard features like the eject key all “just work”.

I point all this out to emphasize that despite the fact that the entirety of Boot Camp, including the new firmware, has been clearly labeled “beta” and not officially supported, Apple has gone out of its way to make running Windows XP on Intel-based Macs a nice experience. They want people to try this.

Right now, it’s a dual-boot situation, which is obviously less than ideal. It’s not hard to imagine, though, that the version of Boot Camp Apple is building into the upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 (a.k.a. Leopard) will be a concurrent virtualization tool — i.e. that Windows (and perhaps any other PC OS) could be hosted within a running Mac OS X session, obviating the rather annoying need to reboot to switch between OSes.

Do I know this? No. But it certainly seems like the obvious direction for Boot Camp to take, and it’s certainly technically possible. E.g. earlier today, their hand presumably forced by Apple’s release of Boot Camp yesterday, Parallels released a public beta of their $50 Workstation virtualization system for Intel-based Macs. It’s like Virtual PC except, because there’s no need to translate between the PowerPC and x86 instruction sets, it executes the hosted virtual system at native speed. I think it’s a safe bet that Apple plans to include something like this with Mac OS X 10.5, for free.

And this points to the rather delicious conclusion that Apple is casting Windows, including Vista, as the new Classic.

Boot Camp portends Apple’s intention to become a Windows-only PC manufacturer no more than Classic served as a hedge against Apple’s commitment to Mac OS X — that is, not at all.

The fear that Windows-on-Mac-hardware implies the eventual death or marginalization of Mac OS X is baseless. Sure, third party developers could start using “Just boot into Windows” as their answer to questions regarding Mac support, but this is no more likely to be popular or successful than it was for developers whose OS X strategy was “Just use Classic”.

This is a move of supreme confidence — Apple relishes the comparison between Mac OS X and Windows XP, and Microsoft has shown enough of Vista via its widely-available beta seeds that Apple quite obviously isn’t afraid of that comparison, either.

Windows is so ubiquitous that the vast majority of Mac users are already quite familiar with it; I see no chance that Boot Camp is going to cause any Mac users to realize that they’ve been missing out on something better. But from the other side, Apple is confident that most Windows users who give Mac OS X a shot are going to prefer it — again, much in the same way that most long-time Mac users preferred Mac OS X to the old Mac OS.

In the same way that Mac users found themselves in a race to go Classic-free after switching to OS X, and that running apps through Classic was viewed from the get-go as something to be done while holding one’s nose, so too will Windows be viewed in the post-Boot Camp world.

Microsoft can’t act like they care — Apple is doing nothing even vaguely sketchy or wrong here, and while Apple isn’t paying Microsoft a dime, anyone using Boot Camp legitimately is doing so by way of a paid-for Windows license.

But everything about Boot Camp is calibrated to position Windows-on-Mac as the next Classic-style ghetto — a compatibility layer that you might need but that you wish you didn’t. Take Apple’s “Word to the Wise” warning regarding Windows security:

Word to the Wise
Windows running on a Mac is like Windows running on a PC. That means it’ll be subject to the same attacks that plague the Windows world. So be sure to keep it updated with the latest Microsoft Windows security fixes.

Even the Boot Camp logo:

Apple's Boot Camp Logo

reinforces this. It’s a bastardized variant of Microsoft’s Windows logo, sans color, and with the whitespace between the four panels forming a hidden “X”, à la the hidden arrow in FedEx’s logo.2

They (Microsoft, that is) are stuck with the fact that in a fair shoot-out, Mac OS X is better. It looks better, it’s better designed, it’s more exciting, more intriguing, more satisfying. Cf. this joke from an anonymous poster in the comments at Mini-Microsoft’s weblog (attached to a post where Mini-Microsoft rails against the current Microsoft leadership regime):

What’s the difference between OS X and Vista?

Microsoft employees are excited about OS X…

That joke just keeps getting funnier.

  1. Was that redundant? ↩︎

  2. Credit to Craig Hockenberry at IconFactory for pointing this out to me via email. ↩︎