Thu 06 Apr
Here was my first reaction to Apple’s announcement that they are now officially enabling, if not supporting, the ability to boot Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system on their new, Intel-based hardware through a software utility they call Boot Camp: “Holy shit!”
This is a momentous move for Apple, something representing a real break from the nagging case of N.I.H. syndrome that’s dogged the company like a lingering cough for years and years. The world outside of Apple’s many legions of overboard devotees seems to think so, too: this afternoon, the Boot Camp story made it into the prized top-left slot on our home page at NYTimes.com (I swear that I have no influence over such decisions), and when the market closed today, AAPL was up by over six dollars.
My second reaction was to email a friend who actually works inside the Apple Computer ‘mothership’ in Cupertino, CA, and ask him how he could ever keep a secret like Boot Camp — indeed how he manages to keep all of Apple’s juicy, expletive-inspiring product secrets — to himself. His response was, “Every day is a trial, man. Every day.” He’s twice the man I would be in that situation, to say the least.
On a third pass, a bit more sobriety nibbled away at my excitement. While I’m ecstatic about the idea of essentially getting two computers for the price of one with my next Macintosh purchase, I think dual booting is short of the ideal that I had in mind. Boot Camp does nothing to mitigate the fact that dual booting is incredibly inconvenient, that a user must first make a modal shift in hardware to move from one operating system to the other.
Through the lens of time and productivity, this is a costly decision-making process, and I can’t imagine swapping back and forth between Windows and Mac OS X more than once or twice a day. For the many users like myself who often need to work on two different platforms at once, it’s still not an ideal solution, nor does it truly mitigate the need to actually have two physical, separate computers on our desks.
When Apple moved to Intel processors, my original hope was for native support for Windows applications inside the Mac OS itself. This means launching programs written expressly for the Windows operating system alongside those written expressly for the Mac OS — getting the applications without the overhead of the frankly unwanted operating system, essentially.
This has been the focus of the open source WINE project, which seeks to give us the world of Windows software without Windows. There’s a Macintosh-specific version of WINE called Darwine, and it has been making steady progress. I still hold out a lot of hope for its eventual maturity, but it’s still a long way off.
Boot Camp, though it’s being released today only in public beta form, is here and now, and it presumably has the more or less full commercial (if not technical) support of Apple Computer itself, which makes it dramatically more viable than Darwine. Still, it strikes me as reaching for only low-hanging fruit: making Windows available from a dual-boot prompt on Intel hardware is only minimally impressive from a technology standpoint. Don’t we expect more from Apple, a company that is practically synonymous with systems innovation?
The Boot Camp announcement reminded me of the past ’daily trials’ that Apple engineers have endured while building spectacularly unexpected products. Digging back into Paul Kunkel’s gorgeous 1997 book, “Apple Design: The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group,” I re-read the passages on the “Jonathan” concept computers built at Apple in the mid-Eighties and designed by John Fitch:
“The idea came to [Fitch] in September 1984. ‘For weeks I had been thinking about a small computer that users could put in their living room and slowly build into a full-blown machine as their needs increased,’ said Fitch. ‘But rather than do a standard motherboard configuration, I designed a backplane that contained the power supply and a few ROM chips in the base… I/O connectors on the back, and a track on top that connected directly to the bus (the backbone of the computer, which functions as a high-speed data highway).’
“Fitch’s concept called for the backplane and track to support book-shaped modules, each containing circuit boards and chips for running the Mac OS, Apple II software, DOS, Windows or Unix operating systems, plus other modules for connecting disk drives, modems and networking hardware all plugged into the same track. Since the backplane was horizontal, and the modules were small and slender, Fitch imagined the system as a book on a shelf. ‘A basic system would have a short shelf with one or two books. A business setup would have three or four books. And a power system would have seven or eight books on a wider shelf.’”
The Jonathan concept would have made the Macintosh the centerpiece of a hardware system that would run virtually any operating system natively. And while nothing I read about it explicitly addressed the issue of easily swapping back and forth between multiple OS’s, it’s still a fundamentally more radical approach to increasing hardware value through software availability than is Boot Camp.
Moreover, Jonathan was first presented to Apple executives in June 1985 — twenty-one years ago. Apple’s CEO at the time, the notoriously short-sighted John Sculley, nixed the project, “…voicing the fear that once the Mac and DOS were offered on the same platform, more Mac users might move to DOS than DOS users would move to the Mac. ‘That reasoning floored us,’ says Fitch. ‘Apparently, Sculley had less faith in the Mac than we did.’”
It’s true that Apple has been rescued from that narrow thinking since Steve Jobs’ return to the helm. And it does seem that, this time out, there’s a genuine belief that Windows is unlikely to sap users away from the Mac platform. As analysts have pointed out today, Boot Camp could be a “game changer,” creating the potential for a new influx of users leaving Windows for the Macintosh.
But in spite of all the innovation Apple brings to the table in so many arenas, the company seems to remain skittish about allowing its customers access to any other operating system than its own. Boot Camp is huge news from a business angle, and it’s going to be a delight to many customers — including me, probably. But that’s only because Apple has set the bar so low in terms of what we’ve come to expect from the company when allowing us to mingle freely outside of the Mac OS X garden. As it stands, Boot Camp is disappointingly short on innovation, especially in contrast to Jonathan; I hope it’s just the first step towards an OS strategy that completely upends the way we think about how multiple operating systems can work together.