I admit it. This is 2,100 words of sheer geek, distilled and set forth.


My computer, as I have mentioned, is a pretty sweet 17" MacBook Pro. It does many good things and has a big screen. It is really fast, even though it's over a year old at this pojnt. Its graphics rock. And for 99.7% of my job and 89.6% of my everyday life, it has absolutely everything I need or want. More to the point, it just gets out of my way and lets me work. (I've said it before and I'll say it again: the operating system of your computer is the least interesting part of that computer, for the vast majority of users. People want to use software. The OS just connects you to it.)

But, there's that .3% of my job and 10.4% of my leisure time that just can't get around Windows. Fortunately, there's nothing in my life that requires Vista, so that's something I don't have to cope with just yet. Regardless, I've always had to have a strategy in place to cover the situations where Windows was necessary. In the olden days around the turn of the century, that meant Virtual PC, which on the old PowerPC Macintoshes acted as an emulator -- creating a software version of the x86 processor the software needed. It would work, especially for my job related software, but it was slow -- emulation took processor power and a lot of RAM, and any operation on the 'Virtual' Windows box would need to send a command to the software's emulated processor, which then had to send a command to the actual hardware processor, which would send back its response... yeah. Slow.

Then came Intel based Macintoshes. And from the day they were first proposed the rumors flew -- if these were based on Intel based processors, does that mean these Macintoshes could actually run Windows too? The obvious answer was 'of course,' which led to any number of arguments with the Macintosh Religious Fanatics, who couldn't believe there would be a day that Steve would allow such heresy to run native 'pon the machines of which he granted his blessing and the blessings of St. Wozniak. There was a point where I had a relatively impassioned argument on the subject standing on the expo floor of an educational technology conference. I was debating an Apple engineer, mind, who absolutely swore to me that Apple would never have an official, Apple branded and approved solution for running Windows on an Intel based Macintosh -- the entire idea was absurd and there was no way they would ever, ever do it. Not in a million years.

As I recall, it was less than six weeks before Boot Camp was announced. I've seen that Englneer since then, it's worth noting. He's not shy about eating crow.

Boot Camp was a great innovation. You could take your copy of Windows, and reboot your computer running off that Operating System instead of Macintosh. Wham, bam, boom, you were running Windows. And, with the MacBook Pro, it was worth noting that the hardware ran Windows faster and more smoothly than any other I had used. There is an advantage, you see, in having absolute control over what hardware goes into your notebook computer. Suddenly, drivers... well, work.

Now, Boot Camp was an excellent option. I still use it today when I want to bury myself into City of Heroes and make it real pretty like. But it's not terribly convenient. To run Windows in Boot Camp, you have to not be running Mac OS X. In effect, all that stuff you have running on your computer normally just goes away, while you use your new shiny aluminum Windows XP machine. In fact, Boot Camp actually partitions your hard drive, so that you have a hard drive partition for your Mac, and a different one for your Windows install. They both work swimmingly on the machine, but they don't coexist well.

To that end, there was the next step in the evolution of Windows and the Mac -- virtualization. Unlike the confusingly named Virtual-PC, Virtualization software doesn't create an emulation of a windows based machine. Instead, it's a hardware-based virtualization package. In effect, it takes some of the system resources and makes them Windows instead of Macintosh, and then it launches Windows XP. For all intents and purposes the Virtualized desktop has its own processor, RAM and access to all the devices, even as it runs inside the host Operating System. As a result, it (theoretically) can run software at the speed of the system processor, without emulation lag. You can run Windows and Mac OS X simultaneously. And both of the two major Virtualization packages (Parallels and VMWare) have modes that will make windows programs behave like Macintosh programs, with their software icons in the Dock, no "Windows" window needed and the like.

That was a better solution for many things -- certainly, most Windows programs run more smoothly. But some stuff -- especially games -- didn't work well or at all, especially when high end graphics were involved. And while you can set these systems to use your boot camp hard drive as its source for Windows, you had to activate Windows a second time anyway, and all too often that meant calling Microsoft to explain that no, you're not trying to run one copy of Windows on two computers -- you have a Macintosh and....

...which is the obvious 800 gorilla in the room. For any of these solutions to work, you had to buy Windows.

Look, I like Macs, but I don't hate Windows XP. I've been using various forms of Windows since the Windows 3 era. But let's be frank -- if you're lucky Windows XP costs $120, all for an operating system that will sit inside a virtualizer to run those few programs that you, the Mac user, can't otherwise use on a Macintosh.

Fortunately, there are Smart People in the world, and those smart people figured out a while ago that they didn't want Windows features on their machines, they just wanted to run some Windows software. Now, most of those smart people were using Linux, and they all got together and launched the WINE project. The WINE project seeks to create alternate but Windows-compatible shared libraries for Unix derivative systems.

Which means, in effect, that systems that can run WINE can run at least some Windows software without Windows. You can see where we're going with this, right?

At this point, I use Crossover and Crossover Games. Crossover is designed for standard Windows software, and uses the most current stable release of WINE. Crossover Games is... er... used for games, and it's got the most advanced -- and less well tested -- bits of WINE in it to enable gameplay. Supported games, like Half-Life 2 and EVE Online, actually play pretty damn well.

Crossover lets me do probably 95% of my work related WindowsFu, which is more than enough for my purposes. Once in a very great while an esoteric configuration program needs the real deal, but it's rare. As for Crossover Games... well, it lets me launch and run City of Heroes, which is pretty much the only game I can't get for Macintosh to begin with. It's not perfect -- it's Unsupported, which means they haven't developed a specific build for it, and there's stuff it gets hung up on, but for most play it works pretty damn well. Which means I can have a CoH window open while doing other stuff. (As the screenshot above shows -- if you click on it, you'll get a full sized version.)

What this means in the longer run is an open question. Microsoft isn't exactly happy with the existence of WINE and it's various forks. There's reports that Windows Genuine Advantage -- the system that prevents updating programs with pirated Windows software -- specifically blocks WINE. Their word is that WINE is by definition not "genuine Windows," which is true enough, though it's also not pirated. (For the record, it's not illegal to reverse engineer software. Which is how Linux exists in the first place. And Dell, for that matter.) At the same time, the existence (and continuing development) of WINE means that the software we use today can still be used tomorrow. There will come a point in the development of Windows where shared resources today's programs depend on are deprecated and ultimately removed. To a degree, this has to happen -- as cruft builds up in operating systems they become less and less stable. You have to wipe out old code to make the new code work well.

Of course, when your old software won't run on your new replacement computer, you have to replace your software. Which Microsoft sells. It's the flip side of new software not working on old operating systems, both for the practical reasons (it would be at the least a technical challenge to make Office 2007 run on Windows 3.11 for Workgroups) and for obvious financial ones. Which is why Microsoft is trying so hard to drive a stake into Windows XP now -- they want people to run Vista, because they want to sell Vista, and if they sell just enough Vista then they can release software that requires Vista. And in a few more revisions down the line, they'll quietly stop supporting software that today requires XP, and then you'll need to upgrade that too.

That sounds sinister, but it's not. It's the necessary business model for a company that made its fortune selling operating systems (the most boring part of the computer) and office productivity software. For a while, they could add features and people would upgrade. These days, more and more people are content to hold off on upgrading their OS and their programs until they actually have to. So, it's in Microsoft's financial interest to ensure that people have to.

Before I sound too much like a fruitbat, let us make no bones about it: this is common. Remember, I'm using a Macintosh, and have been for years. And for a couple of decades, we had the Macintosh Operating System, all the way up to Mac OS 9, and a monumental library of software written for it. And when Mac OS X came out, Apple had to spend a lot of time, money and effort developing a very WINE like software set called Classic that let people run Mac OS 9 compatible software on their Mac OS X machines. They also developed a coding environment and API called Carbon that let people develop software for both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X in one go.

I work at a school, for the record. One that has used Macintoshes since the early 90's. One that developed a monumental amount of curriculum that ran on Mac OS 9 and before, using programs by companies that had themselves moved on after time. We used a ton of Classic on our Macintoshes.

And then we had the Intel Macs, and Classic went away. Now, if we wanted to continue to use that software and that curriculum, we would need to do it on older, PowerPC based machines. At least, as long as the hardware survived. So all's good, right? Well, sure... only we're continuing to develop curriculum on more recent systems and with more recent software, which needs more recent operating systems... and Classic has gone away as of Mac 10.5 Leopard, so even PowerPC based Macs running Leopard can't use the old software at all. And, it looks very likely that Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) won't operate on PowerPC systems period. Gosh, that's stunning.

Naturally, WINE and the various other projects (including some Macintosh projects) mean that newer machines can still end up running older software. And, y'know. Blah blah blah open source blah blah monopolies blah evil. You've heard it before.

And besides, who are we kidding? I don't have Crossover because it sticks it to the man -- for Christ's sake, I own a legitimate copy of XP for this machine. And I don't have it because I'm scared that one day I won't be able to run City of Heroes. If the client stops working on current operating systems sometime in the future, it seems unlikely the servers will still be up in the first place. I have Crossover because it's way more convenient to click a dock icon and have it launch without a full boot cycle when I need to run configurations, and I have Crossover Games because I was sick of rebooting into Windows to play City of Heroes. It's not high minded and it's not protest-driven -- it's convenient.

And that's pretty damn cool.


Unfortunately, the Crossover Games/City of Heos combo doesn't work if you have a Nvidia graphics card. Otherwise I would probably be playing now.

You know, I haven't seen CoH in action, so at first I thought that was just a part of the OS. I was about to seriously reconsider my computing habits.

While it is indeed inevitable that Windows will eventually stop supporting programs that run under older systems, it's unlikely to happen quite as quickly as the Classic to Intel Mac transition. For an interesting (if somewhat technical) overview, check out an essay on the matter over at Ars Technica: http://arstechnica.com/articles/culture/microsoft-learn-from-apple-II.ars/1

I will say, however, as someone with similar OS requirements, that I eagerly look forward to the upcoming refresh of the Mac Book Pro line so that I can leave my now-aged Powerbook G4 behind and have no need for multiple machines ever again. Pretty much the only thing I use my Windows tower for these days is games, and its likely that the new MBPs will vastly outperform it in that department as well. Thanks for the pointers to some of the software that will likely make the transition even more pleasant!

I use Linux for just about everything... I use Crossover Office when I want to run standard windows apps, but I use plain old Wine for running games (like City of Heroes) or Cedega, which runs City of Heroes with fewer problems, but also slower.

1. I'm more interested in your Mac background. Where did you get that lovely map background?

2. Tangent. I'm typing here with a very old book, Lake English Classics: One Hundred Narrative Poems, published in 1918, so it doesn't have Robert Frost poem. But it does have a poem of Robert Burns. Coincidentally, when I look at the Index of Authors, Burn's entry reads this way: Robert Burns, Scotch (1759-1796). (They also have poems from Thomas Campbell and Sir Walter Scott, the other two Scotchs.) But I like that: Robert Burns, Scotch, not only informing me of his land or origin, but perhaps the best potent potable to have while reading a R. Burns literary work.

This is being typed in OS X... ten minutes after rebooting from a session of Warhammer Online in Windows. :)

Hmmm. I forgot to add the "why this is relevant" commentary to that last post. Between using Boot Camp to play old and new games and Crossover to play Source (HL2/Portal/TF2) games, and of course the OS X/Unix goodness, this computer has quickly become my favorite computer I've ever owned.

Point the first: Most of this, I got on a sorta-kinda basis, as I'm rather computer literate.

Point the second: This entry drew me in primarily from that image of CoH.

Point the third: I can't be the only one that got that mission and thought "RAM does not work that way!"

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