Windows on Intel Apples: If Not Now, Soon
Apple Computer Inc.'s new Intel processor machines might not be Windows-friendly at first.
The Cupertino, Calif., computer maker, which on Wednesday surprised Macworld Expo attendees by rolling out an iMac and a new MacBook Pro notebook based on Intel Corp.'s Core Duo processor, has said it has done nothing to prevent Microsoft Corp.'s Windows from running on the new machines for those customers who might want to do so.
"Apple has no plans to sell or support Windows, but we aren't doing anything in our hardware design to preclude our systems from running Windows," company spokesperson Teresa Weaver said in an e-mail to eWEEK.
However, Apple might not have gone all out to help, either, observers say, a move that could potentially limit the options of those businesses or individuals who might wish to create double-boot or even triple-boot machines by combining the new Mac Platforms with Windows and or the Linux operating system.
Apple's plans to switch to Intel Corp. processors from PowerPC chips made by IBM and Freescale Semiconductor Inc. touched off speculation about whether or not Intel Macs would also run Windows, a factor that some saw as making them more attractive to businesses.
Now that the machines are available, numerous reports have said they are unable to load Microsoft's Windows XP, due to the way the OS interacts with their firmware, which controls their boot process — although the machines will boot Microsoft's forthcoming Vista operating system, the reports said.
Whether or not the new Macs can run a given operating system hinges on Apple's implementation of firmware designed to get their Intel hardware primed and ready, before handing off control to an operating system, firmware experts say.
Apple's Intel machines' firmware, the company has said, use a framework called Extensible Firmware Interface, or EFI.
EFI, first created for use with Intel Itanium servers and then adapted to PC hardware, uses a system of drivers to administer to hardware, getting bits such as processors up and running.
But EFI, now called UEFI or United Extensible Firmware Interface by the industry body that governs its development, lacks the ability to hand off to a non-EFI aware operating system after completing its work, experts say, meaning the new Macs are unlikely to run OSes such as Windows XP and versions of Linux engineered for BIOS or basic input/output system software, an older system for getting PC hardware started.
[An Australian tech Web site reported Friday that a local Intel representative had told it certain motherboards supporting the company's latest chips do support EFI, implying that current Intel Macs might be able to boot Windows XP after all.]
Developers have bridged the gap between EFI-based PCs and BIOS-based operating systems by creating software commonly known as a compatibility support module.
That module will allow Windows XP and other BIOS-driven OSes to load on EFI PCs, firmware makers say.
The module "is a piece of software that encapsulates legacy [BIOS] interfaces ... and then runs as an application inside the EFI software," said Robert Wise, vice president of product marketing at Phoenix Technologies Ltd., a firmware maker in Milpitas, Calif.
Phoenix and others, including Insyde Technology Inc., are offering the so-called compatibility modules to their computer maker customers.
Those companies can choose whether or not to add them to their systems, without incurring major cost swings one way or another, the companies indicated.
Yet, it's unclear whether Apple has installed such a module on its machines. Apple did not return a request for comment on whether or not it installed such as module in its new hardware.
Limited operating system selection might not have been top of mind for Apple as the company's primary concerns is selling its own Mac OS operating system, observers said.
Meanwhile, dual-boot or triple-boot machines are fairly rare among businesses, and virtualization technology or software such as Microsoft's Virtual PC could act as a substitute by allowing users to run Windows applications on top of Mac OS.
The ability to create dual-boot machines out of Intel-based Macs and Windows or Linux would, however, increase the options for companies that use Apple's hardware, analysts said.
"You have a number of scenarios that open up that didn't before for the enterprise," said Joe Wilcox, analyst at Jupiter Research. "Imagine an outfit that's doing CAD [computer aided design] work. Most of the good CAD programs run in Windows. For a shop that might want to use Mac OS for many other things, the ability to boot into Windows could be very convenient."
Jupiter Research's figures show 21 percent of United States businesses with 10,000 or more employees run Mac OS on the desktop, he said.
Those businesses might simply have to wait a few more months as both Windows and Linux are poised to gain EFI-awareness in updates due later this year.
Microsoft has said Windows Vista would use EFI and include support for BIOS. Meanwhile, Linux distributions are expected to adopt a new EFI-aware version of that operating system that is coming as well, observers say.
Given their EFI-awareness, Vista and the future Linux versions wouldn't need a compatibility module to run on Apple's Intel hardware, firmware experts said.
"A Mac is a closed box, so Apple can make decisions about things that they don't include," Wise said. "That makes, it in some ways, simpler for them."
Ironically, Apple is one of the first major computer makers make a major commitment to EFI for its client computers.
PC makers are expected to follow by beginning to adopt EFI for large numbers of their machines in coming months.
Those PC makers that do are likely to be forced to add the compatibility module to their machines.
Given that businesses expect the PCs they buy to be able to run several versions of Windows, including Windows XP, as well as Linux, most hardware makers will have to include compatibility modules in their machines' EFI firmware, said Stephen Gentile, president of Insyde Technology in Southborough, Mass.
"We expect to be supporting all flavors of OSes for a long time within our [EFI] framework firmware solution," Gentile said. "Right now, the demand is such that you need to have this compatibility support."
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