Can virtualization double Apple's market share?

Summary:If these requirements are ever met, you'll be able to run a thin layer of software called a Hypervisor from companies like XEN and be able to install multiple operating systems such as Mac OS X for Intel, Windows, Linux, or BSD directly on to the raw hardware.

There has been a lot of grumbling in the Apple fan base that questions the decision to migrate to the Intel platform, but could Steve Jobs have a secret weapon up his sleeves to double Apple's market share in the desktop computing market?  There may very well be and it's Apple's exclusive license to run on the x86 platform.

The initial migration to the Intel platform is a bumpy road and it has been costly in terms of sluggish sales due to the anticipation of the newer Intel-based Macs.  Many Apple fans point out that the move to Intel based CPUs makes it vulnerable to direct comparisons of price versus performance and therefore loses the mystique of the PowerPC RISC processors.  To make matter worse, an evaluation of Apple's Rosetta PowerPC emulation engine by AnandTech seems to indicate a severe performance penalty when running native PowerPC applications.  Even though the new Intel Core Duos are delivering superior performance for Intel compiled applications as promised, some PowerPC applications often can't even run at 1/3 the speed of a G5.  If you're wondering why Steve Jobs would put the Macintosh through such a torturous migration, the answer might be virtualization.

When I speak of virtualization, I don't mean the kind of virtualization that makes Rosetta so slow because it has to do costly PowerPC to Intel x86 CPU emulation.  I'm speaking of the type of virtualization that's never been available to Apple before but is now because of the new Intel CPUs.  The new form of emulation is a thin translation layer that minimizes resource overhead and there are many possibilities.

Both VMWare and Microsoft are promising Intel optimized virtualization software that will run any version of Windows, Linux, or BSD with minimal overhead.  The down side to this approach is that a licensed copy of Windows is still needed and things like I/O and video graphics are still emulated which severely impact performance and eliminates the possibility of running games.  Then there's the option of running Wine or CrossOver with limited application support but without the need for a licensed copy of windows.  But ultimately, perhaps the final goal of Apple is to support true hardware partitioning through paravirtualization.

Of course, there are still many barriers to paravirtualization for the new Intel Mac.  Intel would have to release new Core Duo CPUs that have VT support which is likely in the near future.  Apple would have to implement a BIOS compatibility layer for EFI to support bare-metal installation of Windows that only support the conventional BIOS although this is currently just speculation.  If these requirements are ever met, you'll be able to run a thin layer of software called a Hypervisor from companies like XEN and be able to install multiple operating systems such as Mac OS X for Intel, Windows, Linux, or BSD directly on to the raw hardware.  This of course assumes you have enough hard drive and RAM to support multiple operating systems.

The implication of all this is that Apple will be the only companies licensed to run Mac OS X, Windows, and other common x86 operating systems in the world since no one else is licensed to run Mac OS X.  This would open the possibility of using Macs for PC gaming or any other Windows application that traditionally wouldn't run at all or didn't run well on PowerPC Macintosh PC emulators.  All the borderline cases where people aren't sure about a Macintosh because of their requirements for Windows applications and games will all of sudden be more willing to accept the Mac.  If Steve Jobs plays his cards right and delivers true paravirtualization, Apple may indeed double its market share.

Topics: Virtualization

About

George Ou, a former ZDNet blogger, is an IT consultant specializing in Servers, Microsoft, Cisco, Switches, Routers, Firewalls, IDS, VPN, Wireless LAN, Security, and IT infrastructure and architecture.

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