Opinion: Will the new Macs run Windows and Linux as well as Mac OS X? Here's a history lesson on multiboot machines.

The siren call of multiple-boot machines keeps insinuating itself into the left brains of IT managers, especially following Apple CEO Steve Jobs' unveiling last week of the first Intel-based Macs.

While Apple Computer and Microsoft remain mum on the prospect, one expected benefit of Apple's switch from PowerPC to X86 processors would be a machine that can boot in three flavors of operating systems: Mac OS X, Windows and Linux.

Certainly, Apple wasn't going to talk up multibooting. The pitch to the Macworld Expo crowd here in San Francisco was meant to reassure the faithful about the processor transition, especially for PowerBook users. The PowerPC G4 used for years in both the pro and consumer notebooks had grown so long in the tooth that its performance was seen as pathetic.

Jobs said the new Intel-based MacBook Pro was four to five times as fast as the previous generation.

During the many software demonstrations in the keynote address, performance of native applications appeared very fast and even the building of a multilayer, effects-laden Adobe Photoshop document — running under the Rosetta translation layer — occurred at decent speed. Of course, graphics pros will use the PowerMac workstation, instead of a notebook.

Linux distributions have targeted the PowerPC Macs, and the machines have long had a strong showing with developers at Linuxworld conferences. And I've appreciated the chutzpah of Yellow Dog Linux, which has been pitching itself as the replacement desktop operating system for Mac OS X PowerPC "orphans."

Perhaps more of Microsoft's intentions will be revealed over the course of the weeklong conference.

The questions remain: Will Microsoft support the booting of Windows on Apple's new machines? Will Microsoft release a Mactel version of its Virtual PC product, letting Mac customers run Windows applications (and Windows) in a pane on the Mac OS X desktop?

According to recent postings on a number of Windows and Mac sites, Windows XP currently can't boot on the Mactel machines because of Apple's use of the EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface) in place of the standard BIOS, or Basic Input/Output System.

What's needed is either a refreshed version of Windows XP, Windows Vista (which will support EFI), or an EFI hack. My money is on the last option arriving in a week or two.

According to one source familiar with the Microsoft Virtual PC project, the team was caught flat-footed by the Mactel transition announcement late last spring. Much of the work relied on the Metrowerks' CodeWarrior environment, and Apple has pushed its own Cocoa frameworks for Intel compatibility.

In addition, Apple has yet to provide developers with the deep hooks needed for such virtualization, the source said.

Instead, Apple put its effort in the past year into getting Mac OS X to run on the Intel hardware and making sure its applications were also native — a strategy seen unfolding in Jobs' demonstration on Tuesday.

There were no crashes or problems with the software. It all worked as usual or better, given the increased performance.

Longtime Apple watchers can recall when multiple booting was a primary strategy in Cupertino, Calif.

In fact, the plans were a part of the company's vision to license the Mac operating system — one of the first things that CEO Steve Jobs stomped down upon his return to Apple in 1997.

All in all, there's plenty of irony to go around in multiboot's latest incarnation, the new Mactel machines. There once was a time when IT managers could look forward to running about 7 operating systems on a single hardware platform.

Here's an annotated timeline:

In late 1991, Apple, IBM and Motorola formed an alliance to save the computer industry through the PowerPC RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) processors.

The companies said the competing CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computer) architecture used in Intel processors, among others, would shortly run smack into a techno-roadblock that would bring computing progress to a crawl in the areas of performance, heat buildup and power consumption.

In addition to the RISC processor itself, IBM pushed the concept of a hardware reference platform called PReP (PowerPC Reference Platform). The design provided a description for a logic board running a PowerPC processor and a range of mandated I/O ports and bus architectures.

A surprising list of OS makers pledged support for the platform: Microsoft with Windows NT, IBM with AIX and OS/2, and Novell with Processor Independent Netware.

A version of Windows already ran under emulation software on the PowerPC. And Sun Microsystems executives said at the time that a port of Solaris "would require little effort."

However, bringing the Mac OS onboard proved elusive. It wasn't until November 1994 that the "AIM Alliance" announced that Apple would join the party with System 7.5, running on a new, improved and renamed CHRP (Common Hardware Reference Platform). The coalition's efforts were on display in a large circus tent erected outside the Las Vegas convention center for Comdex.

The arrival of Apple would bring other changes to the platform with the inclusion of Apple legacy I/O ports and controllers, such as its flavor of SCSI, the LocalTalk networking interface and the ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) peripheral port.

With the choice of a controller, PC or Mac makers could make a machine that supported both Mac and PC I/O — the multiboot machine — or just the Mac OS.

Instead of BIOS, the machines used Open Firmware (IEEE 1275) drivers stored on a boot ROM, which configured the system hardware.

Analysts and execs touted the combo of a true 32-bit operating system with a high-performance, 32-bit RISC processor. Some said the platform could quickly pick up as much as a 30 percent market share.

Following the announcement event, an Intel spokesperson said, "Looks like they have a couple of years to get where Intel is today ... We're not quaking in our boots."

At a spring 1995 briefing, then Apple R&D chief Dave Nagel told me that "CHRP is particularly good for the IS guy."

Since enterprise managers wouldn't want to be tied to a particular hardware and operating system combination for developmental tools, "It just reduces risk," he said.

This dream fell apart over the course of several years as OS makers decided to skip the platform. Microsoft was first, then the others, until it was down to AIX and the Mac operating system.

Apple continued its strategy of licensing the Mac OS until the summer of 1997, when Steve Jobs killed the remaining deals and kept the next-generation Power PC G3 upgrade cycle for the company.

As the expression goes: The rest is history. On the multiple-boot front, Apple may, or may not, have come full circle with its release of Intel Macs.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include information on Windows XP's support for BIOS and EFI.

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