Sunday, April 1, 2007

Windows in a.... window

Although I buck the corporate trend by using a Mac as my primary machine at work (I'm one of four in my 55-person group), I still need to occasionally use internal websites or utilities that function only on Windows.

In the past, I've had to go so far as to find a Windows machine that someone wasn't using and borrow it for five minutes to fill out a form, approve a ticket or take a 'preventing violence in the workplace' course. Unfortunately, tincupping for IE time on coworker's computers didn't help support my smugly superior Mac user attitude.

Thankfully, the fine people at Parallels have come to the rescue of my frail Apple ego. With Parallels Desktop for Mac, I can boot up Windows in a window on my desktop, and launch Windows apps like Internet Explorer and go about my business of learning why I shouldn't batter my subordinates.

Sounds like a good setup, right? Well, it gets better. Recent versions of Parallels allow me to shrink the Windows window down to the specific application windows I'm using- this is called 'Coherence.' This allows me to use Windows applications without having to look at the rest of Windows:

Since the distinction is rather subtle in this mode, that's a screenshot of IE running in Windows, acting like a windowed application within Mac OS X.

An interesting artifact of this method is that it's actually a better experience running Windows in this mode. Since all the hardware is virtual, Windows doesn't have to fuss about installing drivers for this screen adapter or that USB device- Parallels manages the inputs, and makes everything on my Mac look like a plain vanilla PC to Windows.

The lack of hardware predictability has always been Window's main downfalls; the Mac OS has the luxury of a limited set of hardware profiles to support. By relieving Windows of the burden of playing a technological twenty questions every time I want to change a setting, its user experience goes from actively frustrating to merely goofy.

Microsoft benefits by selling another instance of Windows (I had to pay full price for it, something like $300) since it doesn't come pre-installed with Parallels, as it would on a physical PC. Since I'm not trying to make Windows work with a homemade PC using a video card manufactured by Frank's Discount Electronics and Fishing Lures, they don't have to spend money on a support person to tell me it's not Window's fault that the machine isn't working.

Of course, this does throw a wrench into Microsoft's plan to be the software that runs everything everywhere- on my hardware, Windows is a effectively a very complicated and bloated application runtime environment, like the Java virtual machine or the Flash plug-in.

One of the arguments coming from the Mac camp against virtualization went something like this: When Macs can run Windows apps, no one will bother writing Mac specific apps, and that will eventually lead to the end of the Mac software market- we'll be forced to use Windows versions of everything from Adobe Photoshop to SpaceWard Ho!. That might have been the case when Macs had proprietary, unique, expensive hardware- but now that Macs have Intel inside like the rest of the club, and the cost differential between Mac hardware and its PC equivalent has narrowed or disappeared, I'm seeing a different dynamic at work.

The logic I'm hearing nowadays is 'Since Macs can run both Mac OS and Windows, why would I buy a machine that can only run Windows applications?' Hardcore developer colleagues of mine are now switching over to MacBook Pros, confident they can still boot Vista to do their industrial work, but switch back to the Mac OS to organize their photos or videos with the iLife suite, or do super-easy video chatting with iChat and the nifty built-in camera on all Mac laptops.

Apple loves this, since they make very little money off their OS anyhow- it's mostly a shiny toy to get you to buy their computers. If they can add 'Windows' to the list of applications that run on the Mac, then they've got the world's largest software company effectively marketing their machines.

There's a few ways this story can go from here, but I'll leave the wild-eyed extrapolation for a future post. Suffice to say this is starting to evolve along the same lines of other tech vs. tech stories- as the technology behind a market advantage becomes widespread and commoditized, other qualities, such as brand, ease of use, reliability, and customer focus begin to reassert themselves. Steve Jobs should be thanking Gordon Moore and his eponymous law for chips that are powerful enough to render moot the OS as the overriding definition of the computing experience, and let task-based applications float to the top based on their merit.

No comments: