How we learned to stop worrying and love the boot.
I’ve noticed something odd about my writing habits here at FatBits. The bigger the story, the less apt I am to blog about it. Big stories elicit big reactions. The bloggers come out in droves. By the time I’ve actually learned enough about the story to write about it, I feel like everything’s already been said. The exception, of course, is when everyone gets it wrong (in my ever-so-humble opinion). Then I still feel like I have something to add to the discussion.
Most big stories about Apple fall somewhere in the middle, with an even mix of astute and asinine commentary. The recent announcement of Boot Camp exceeded my expectations, however. Within hours of the announcement, the entire Mac web had dealt with its initial Windows-induced anxiety attacks and settled on a common analysis of the situation. The remarkable part was not the quick arrival of a consensus, but the fact that it was actually right.
John Gruber summed up the situation beautifully, and I agree with what he wrote in almost every detail. His post is more articulate and lucid than most other Boot Camp commentary on the web, but the content is essentially the same as you’ll find elsewhere. We all got this one right.
Perhaps predictably, as my sense of collective satisfaction and pride reached its peak, I stumbled upon a post that must have been created by the Bizarro Gruber. Chris Seibold’s analysis of the Boot Camp announcement is exactly wrong in every way that John Gruber’s is exactly right.
I’m not going to pick apart Seibold’s article. (Gruber already did that preemptively.) It’s like the comically exaggerated exception that proves the rule. On the whole, I still say the Mac web got this one right, even after you throw out the highest and lowest scores. But I do have a little bit to say about Boot Camp.
My first reaction to the announcement was relief, not surprise. Ever since Apple joined the Windows benchmarking consortium, BAPCo, I’ve considered it a foregone conclusion that Apple hardware would eventually run Windows. I mean, duh. Why would any PC hardware maker join a Windows benchmarking consortium unless it wants to benchmark its hardware running Windows? Sure, you can come up with some (remotely) plausible alternate explanations, but Occam’s razor applies. Just look at this quote from last month, found on some crazy web site. “The likely end product of Apple’s decision to join BAPCo are Mac OS X versions of the consortium benchmarking apps.” Likely? C’mon, people.
Yeah, I know, look at me, so brave with my 20/20 hindsight. But believe what you want. Resistance to the idea that “BAPCo == Windows on Macs” was built on a massive foundation of denial. Clear heads saw this as the mostly likely outcome by a long-shot.
So, that explains my lack of surprise. My relief came from a much more personal source. Finally, I’ll be able to play Half Life 2! And Crysis, and Homeworld, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Yes, for me (and many other Mac users, I suspect), Windows will be a dandied-up game console OS. I’ve been resisting buying a gaming PC for a long time. Now I won’t have to.
This brings me to the most worrying part of Apple’s official sanctioning of Windows on Mac hardware. It’s the dreaded rebuke, “Let them use Windows!” Don’t get me wrong, I do agree with the common wisdom here. Any vendor that decides to stop development of its Mac applications and directs its customers to boot into Windows and use the Windows version of the software instead is in for a very rude awakening. Mac users will not do this, and they will hate you for even suggesting it. Mac users want Mac software. Hell, even some actual Mac applications are met with an upturned nose. (Take Google Earth—please!) We’re a finicky bunch.
This naturally leads to the fear that Mac users will simply snub themselves out of the software market entirely by rejecting the supposedly inevitable “just boot Windows” crumbs offered to them. Here’s my favorite rebuttal of that scenario, from a comment on Seibold’s article page, by Dogger Blue. (Emphasis added.)
Consumers don’t compete for developers. It’s the other way around. Any developer who wants any significant presence among Mac users needs to release an OS X version. That is never going to change, and any developer who thinks that will change, might as well just write off all their Mac business because some other developer will come along and take advantage of the fact that they have just left the door wide open for competitors.
There is money to be made in the Mac software market. (Just ask Microsoft; Mac Office is incredibly profitable.) As long as the number of people with Apple hardware stays about the same, that’s not going to change. And if it increases, as seems likely given the removal of one more barrier to entry (“Can it run my Windows?”), the pool of Mac software money will only get bigger. Software makers are competing for that pool. They have to satisfy us.
This realization leads to a dark truth, however. What happens when the directive to “just use the Windows version” is not met with a derisive sneer, but with an eager smile? “Yes, please!” Not possible? You just saw it happen a few paragraphs ago when I expressed my willingness to boot Windows to play Crysis, et al. Ah games, always a special case. The grim calculus of Mac gaming is as follows.
Computer games are developed primarily for Windows. With Windows holding down 90% of the PC market, this won’t change any time soon. Games are heavily optimized, and those optimizations are at least partially Windows-specific. If a Mac port of a game exists at all, it’s almost always slower. Sometimes it has more features or looks better than the initial Windows release, but only when it’s released much later. “Later and slower” are not music to a gamer’s ears.
Add to this Microsoft’s ongoing campaign to migrate each and every PC game developer to DirectX, an API that does not exist on Mac OS X. This makes porting games to the Mac even harder, and adds another layer of abstraction to further impair performance.
Finally, games usually don’t show any part of the OS at all, so they’re effectively immune to Mac OS snobbery. All games are equally “Mac-like” (or “un-Mac-like,” depending on how you look at it) once they’re up and running full-screen. At that point, the OS is no more important to a PC gamer than to a console gamer.
Now, given all of this, imagine offering a Mac gamer complete parity with the Windows game market in terms of software performance, availability, and pricing. All that’s required is a reboot (and maybe not even that…more later). Who’s interested?
A hell of a lot of people, that’s who. Me, for one, and I’m about as die-hard a Mac gamer as you’ll find. Transylvania, Lode Runner, Uninvited, Crystal Quest, Dark Castle, Lunar Rescue, Marathon, the worlds beyond the mackerel…I lived the life (such as it was). I live it still, with Quake 3, UT2004, Knights of the Old Republic, you name it. I’m ready and willing to buy Mac games. I’ll accept “a little bit later and a little bit slower.” But fewer and fewer Mac game ports meet even those timid criteria.
There are a few saving graces here. The first is that the pie may get bigger even as the portion of customers willing to pay for Mac game ports gets smaller. Things could even out in the end, or it might even be a net win. And mark my words, I will buy the Mac version of UT2007 if it’s at least as good and as timely as the UT2004 Mac port. I hope there are enough Mac users like me to sustain such a product. Adding more total Mac users can only help the cause.
The second source of hope comes from the Intel transition. Mac game porters should have an easier time with CPU optimization now that they can directly benefit from the work done on Windows. (DirectX is still a thorn in the side of Mac gaming, but presumably developers have been honing their DirectX-to-OpenGL libraries on Mac OS X in recent years.)
Finally, there’s the initial reaction from the Mac game porters themselves. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure, but remember that this is likely the worst that they’ll feel, interviewed mere hours after the Boot Camp announcement. Some of their gloom is probably justified, but they still seem willing to fight the good fight. That’s all I ask.
Virtual PC redux
It was probably about thirty seconds between the time most Mac users heard about Boot Camp and their subsequent wish that they wouldn’t have to reboot in order to run Windows on their Mac. Everyone wants virtualization, and it looks like Mac users will get it eventually, even if it doesn’t come from Microsoft (né Connectix) or Apple. Getting it from Apple would be ideal, of course. It’s bad enough to have to pay for Windows itself. It’d be nice to avoid paying even more for the virtualization software.
Speaking of which, the opening paragraph of Apple’s Boot Camp web page contains this tease.
Apple will include technology in the next major release of Mac OS X, Leopard, that lets you install and run the Windows XP operating system on your Mac. Called Boot Camp (for now), you can download a public beta today.
Hopeful Mac users everywhere have interpreted this as near-confirmation that Leopard will have virtualization built-in. But as with the BAPCo story, I think they’re mostly seeing what they want to see instead of what’s really there. I want Leopard to include virtualization too, but the text above doesn’t support that outcome.
It doesn’t preclude it either, of course. It’s completely neutral. The only way to view the Boot Camp announcement as a reinforcement of the virtualization in Leopard rumor is if you previously thought that Apple would “never ever” allow Windows on Mac hardware. But that’d be a pretty silly belief, given Apple’s historic support for products like Virtual PC, not to mention its own past forays into selling Macs that run Windows.
It’s not even that I doubt that Apple is working on adding virtualization to Mac OS X. The question is, will it ship with Leopard? I see Boot Camp just as it’s described by Apple: a beta test of dual booting. Early adopters will wring it out, the drivers will be further debugged and improved, and it’ll all come together in the form of seamless, problem-free dual booting in Leopard.
I’m not sure Apple’s even ready to consider including virtualization in Leopard. You have to walk before you can run, after all. I don’t rule it out entirely, but right now I see this shaping up a lot like the resolution independent UI situation in Tiger: one release to lay the foundation, with real support to come in the next.
Finally, don’t forget the Microsoft factor in all of this. I’m sure the ongoing negotiations between Apple and Microsoft regarding the future of Virtual PC are tightly intertwined with the possibility of virtualization built into future versions of Mac OS X.
The silver lining
Beyond all the obvious benefits and potential pitfalls of Boot Camp, its arrival has made life a lot easier in one important way. The accompanying firmware update reportedly allows Intel Macs to cold-boot from most Windows and Linux installations CDs. In other words, Intel Macs are finally starting to look a lot more like “regular PCs” from the perspective of other operating systems. That’s a far cry from the barren firmware wasteland that the Intel Macs shipped with, which required a $13,000 contest to overcome. (Okay, maybe it didn’t strictly require all that money, but it was still pretty hard.)
Cringely has also essentially confirmed that Apple and Microsoft are working together to ensure that Intel Macs can boot and run Vista. This is all good news for non-hackers dreaming of One Computer to Run Them All. In the end, it helps the hackers too. Who really wants to futz with stuff like this? Give me that sweet, sweet official support.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.