Under The Microscope

What Does Virtualization Really Do To The Mac World?

Here’s Some Hot Air…

Everyone’s all geared up for the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) next week, including us here at Rogue Amoeba. Mike Ash will be representing the team out in California, so if you see a guy in a Rogue Amoeba shirt who looks like this, buy him a beer. That, or tell him I said “Get back to work!”.

Anyhow, several developers are posting predictions/wild-ass guesses about what Apple will introduce or at least show off at WWDC. Brent had some interesting thoughts about the basic UI direction of OS X, most of which I find myself concurring on. Gus also posted some thoughts that are worth looking over.

I suppose I might as well share my insider knowledge with you. Rosy though the transition has seemed, Apple is actually deeply unsatisfied with Intel (I think Steve’s dissatisfied with Intel’s wretched product names). Because of this, Apple’s switching to SPARC. I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But you’d have said the same thing about the Intel switch just last year! SPARC brings us back to the glory of RISC, and it’s open source (open source hardware!), that’s very hip right now. Best of all, instead of Sun buying Apple a la 1996, Apple will be the savior to the few dozen remaining Sun fans, helping the company limp along for a few more years after the Microsoft money runs out.

…And Here’s A Cold Splash Of Reality

In all seriousness though, we have done some thinking about what will be in 10.5, and perhaps the biggest change could relate to Windows, Boot Camp, Parallels, and true virtualization (where Windows apps “just work” on OS X). “Super Rosetta”, as Gus put it in his aforementioned post.

If virtualization is part of Leopard, it’s interesting as a user and fairly frightening as a developer. While tippling with Daniel Jalkut earlier this week, the topic of virtualization came up and got me thinking. Virtualization would instantly bring a huge number of “Windows” applications to the Mac platform, but there are two very important things it would not do.

1) Virtualization would not initially bring (m)any new users to the platform.

If suddenly a Macintosh computer looks like a Mac and acts like a Mac but also runs Windows software, that’s certainly appealing to lots of people. However, meaningful new user growth on the OS X platform from that would take a lot of time. Meanwhile, the existing Mac user base would suddenly have a lot more software to choose from, while developers still had roughly the same size user base to fight over.

2) Virtualization doesn’t instantly bring Mac software to Windows.

That seems obvious, but it’s still important, because it means that Mac developers see no up front gains from virtualization. I’d also go so far as to say you’d never see Mac apps virtualized on Windows. Unlike Apple bringing Windows software to the Mac, Microsoft would gain very little from having Mac apps on Windows.

So it really seems that virtualization would primarily benefit Mac users and Windows developers. Mac users suddenly have a lot more software overall and many more choices for any one type of application. Windows developers suddenly gain millions of new potential customers. Admittedly, a fair chunk of these people will sneer at the thought of soiling their Macs with Windows software, but many more will not. After that, one must wonder for how long it would be viable for Adobe to produce Windows and Mac versions of Photoshop. Does both the quantity and quality of Macintosh software eventually drop due to virtualization? It certainly seems possible.

In short, if high-quality virtualization (read: as seamless as Rosetta) occurs, developers all over the Mac will be left with a lot of new competition and the same size user base. Over time, that base would (hopefully) increase, but would everyone survive? Would the new users purchase true Mac software or stick with the software they used back on Windows? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone can claim he does. I do know that the whole thing is very interesting and more than a little bit scary.

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