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Weekly Column

A Whole New Ball Game: Blame Dell for Window Vista's Latest Delay, but Blame Microsoft for Apple's Boot Camp

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Twenty-five years ago, my Thursday nights were mainly spent playing poker with a group that included legendary sportswriter Leonard Koppett from the New York Times and The Sporting News. "Koppy," as everyone called him, was a short, round wide man of infinite good humor who I can't imagine as a baseball player, yet as a baseball writer, he eventually made it to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame. What made Koppy legendary was his invention of a certain type of baseball story, one that looked at the game from a technical perspective, relying heavily on statistics. Where the stock in trade for baseball writers had always been describing Ruth pointing to the outfield or Mays making a blind catch, Koppy had the ability to say that at the moment Mays was making that catch the game -- and possibly the season -- was already lost, and why. Too few journalists realize the power of this kind of dissection, which can be applied to almost any industry. (Yes, baseball is an industry.) But you have to know what you are talking about. I try to apply it here from time to time and when I come up with the odd story like this one that is based as much on what is unseen as what is seen, well you can blame Koppy, who died in 2003.

This column isn't about baseball. It is about Windows Vista, which Microsoft said a couple weeks ago would be shipping later than expected and would miss the 2006 Christmas season. There has been lots of speculation about exactly why Microsoft had to make such an expensive decision, and five of those reasons were covered right here two weeks ago. But this time I am ready to lay the definitive reason for this particular Windows Vista delay on Dell Computer.

It is easy to forget that Microsoft works mainly through its OEM partners, which include Dell, HP, and many others. If Microsoft announces a date by which some future product is going to be available, they can only do so with the agreement of the OEMs. I know we hear (and I write) a lot about Microsoft beating up its partners, but Bill Gates can't put new software on a Dell computer without Michael Dell's permission.

According to those familiar with the way Dell qualifies new software, they are very careful about their shipping OS/application sets. They put together new builds every quarter, and test them for a full quarter. This means that to ship something in October it has to be into a build set in July, which means it has to be slotted some time in April. And that's just for an application. Now imagine what Dell's test plan looks like for a whole new operating system.

Remember, Microsoft announced a delay of availability to the public, but absolutely nothing changed about their Release To Manufacturing (RTM) date. So what happened is reality finally set in at Microsoft. I'm saying it was Dell, but it could as easily been HP, which of course has to work that much further ahead because, unlike Dell, HP manufactures for distribution through resellers.

So Microsoft possibly could have stuck to its original November availability estimate, but that would have meant a Christmas with Vista available only from second-tier PC manufacturers, and darned few of those.

The only shocking thing here is that this seems to have somehow taken Microsoft by surprise. If they didn't realize internally that shipping a new OS for Christmas means getting final bits to the OEMs in July, they have problems in the Windows division far beyond just their ability to ship.

But wait, there's more!

Last week, a Microsoft data security guru suggested at a conference that corporate and government users would be wise to come up with automated processes to wipe clean hard drives and reinstall operating systems and applications periodically as a way to deal with malware infestations. What Microsoft is talking about is a utility from SysInternals, a company that makes simply awesome tools.

The crying shame of this whole story is that Microsoft has given up on Windows security. They have no internal expertise to solve this problem among their 60,000-plus employees, and they apparently have no interest in looking outside for help. I know any number of experts who could give Microsoft some very good guidance on what is needed to fix and secure Windows. There are very good developers Microsoft could call upon to help them. But no, their answer is to rebuild your system every few days and start over. Will Vista be any better?

I don't think so.

Now to Apple and its Boot Camp utility announced this week to allow Intel Mac owners to boot into either OS X 10.4 or Windows XP. Readers (and Wall Street) took this to mean much more than I did, and I like to think I am correct.

Let's take a look and see what this product does -- and doesn't -- do for Apple.

First, we should have seen it coming last week when Apple joined the BAPCo Intel benchmarking group. BAPCo, a consortium of PC hardware and software companies and computer publications, produces standardized benchmark tests, but only for Windows computers. So by joining BAPCo, Apple was saying that it intended to run some version of Windows on Macintosh hardware. Apple doesn't join standards organizations lightly, so Cupertino must expect that the IntelMacs will show quite well against more standard Windows platforms.

Boot Camp, itself, is unexciting. So you can boot into Windows or OS X, big deal. You can't boot into Windows AND OS X. You can't cut and paste data between the two OS's or even access the same data, as far as I can see. For this you'd need Virtual PC - a Microsoft product - if only a version existed for the IntelMac platform.

Some cunning readers see this as a huge coup for Apple that will somehow keep Microsoft from shipping Vista (explain that to me again, please) and eventually take the hardware leadership away from Dell and the software leadership away from Microsoft. Yeah, right.

Boot Camp makes no revenue for Apple and never will. IT IS BETA SOFTWARE. I doubt that its existence, especially as a beta product, is going to make some Fortune 500 company suddenly sanction the purchase of Macs because they can, with some effort and an extra $100, pretend to be Windows machines. While Boot Camp might help show prospective purchasers the superiority of Apple hardware, those purchasers would have to buy their Macs first and then convince themselves that they had done the right thing, which is totally backwards.

Readers and pundits alike seem to think that Boot Camp is a surprise for Microsoft, which I guarantee you it is not. I'll get to explaining why that is in a minute, but for the moment just realize with me that the only company that truly benefits from Boot Camp is Microsoft, because they'll get to sell a retail copy of Windows XP for every copy of Boot Camp and retail XP makes Microsoft about three times as much money as the OEM version.

Microsoft LOVES Boot Camp and I am sure they'll say that shortly. After all, Boot Camp sells more copies of Windows without threatening more sophisticated products like Microsoft's own Virtual PC.

One reason why Microsoft isn't surprised by Boot Camp is because Microsoft has been working with Apple to make sure that Windows Vista runs well on IntelMacs. Apple will support Vista dual boot, though I don't know if they will become a Vista OEM, but I can't imagine why they wouldn't if it will help sales.

If Boot Camp is part of an OEM deal worked out with Microsoft, that suggests that Microsoft will take the high ground by offering a version of Virtual PC for IntelMacs. To be perfectly honest here, I KNOW about the Vista compatibility through Microsoft (not Apple) sources, but I am only guessing about the Virtual PC part.

Microsoft and Apple are happy with each other for the moment, and rather than representing some Apple attack on Microsoft, Boot Camp just represents the state of their happy partnership. But this won't last for long. It never does.

I predict that Apple will settle on 64-bit Intel processors ASAP (with FireWire 800 please), and at that time will announce a product similar to Boot Camp to allow OS X to run on bog-standard 32-bit PC hardware, turning the Boot Camp relationship on its head and trying to sell $99 copies of OS X to 100 million or so Windows owners.

That's the point when, as Koppy used to write, the game turns.

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