Whither virtual PC?

The news broke like a thunderclap across the Mac community: Microsoft Corp. said last week that it had purchased the "virtual machine solutions" of Connectix Corp.

Connectix, based in San Mateo, Calif., makes Virtual PC, an "emulator" application that allows Windows programs to run on a Mac, though sluggishly. Still, Virtual PC represents a safety valve for Mac users who occasionally need to run a Windows program but don't want to buy a Windows PC.

The transaction was completed Feb. 18, the day before the announcement. During a transition period of about six months, Connectix will continue to sell the acquired products under its own name; after that, they will bear a Microsoft label.

The companies did not disclose financial details of the deal.

Shortly after the news broke, Mac forums filled with comments from worried users. Some didn't explain their concerns, simply posting such statements as "This is bad -- very bad."

Others suspected a nefarious Microsoft plot, in which Virtual PC had been bought only to be killed at some future date to force Mac users to switch permanently to Windows.

Perhaps some of the consternation resulted from nervousness stirred last month when Apple Computer Inc. announced two applications, the Safari Web browser and Keynote presentation software, that compete directly with Microsoft products.

Mac users assuming Microsoft is peeved at Apple may view the Connectix deal as Microsoft's retaliatory strike. But that notion smacks just a bit too much of paranoia.

As a Mac user myself, I admit that I, too, was stunned and unnerved when I first heard the news. But after several days of reading about the deal and reflecting on what it might mean to the Mac community, my sense is that it's not necessarily as bad as it looks.

First, it's clear from an article on the eWeek Web site that Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., didn't set out to snap up Virtual PC for the Mac.

In fact, the Connectix deal resulted from Microsoft's search for "virtual machine" technology to help them migrate business customers of their server products from older server versions of Windows -- like Windows NT4 -- to the latest version -- Windows Server 2003.

Connectix just happened to have the best technology available for Microsoft's needs; getting Virtual PC for the Mac was a bonus.

Second, Microsoft said last week that the Virtual PC for Mac development team would be folded into its Mac Business Unit, the same division that produces Microsoft's other Mac software, such as Internet Explorer and Office.

Most agree that Mac BU did a terrific job with Office v.X for the Mac. With a direct line to the Windows development team, it's feasible that Microsoft could make improvements to Virtual PC that no other developer, not even Connectix, could make. At minimum, it's premature to presume that Microsoft plans to jettison or cripple Virtual PC.

In an interview with Business Week Online, the director of marketing at Mac BU, Tim McDonough, pointed to the 1 million users of Virtual PC for the Mac in explaining why the product is a "good fit" for Microsoft's Apple business.

"We look at ourselves as being all about compatibility and helping Mac users work well with Windows users, " McDonough said. "Virtual PC creates a whole new level of compatibility for us and our customers."

Even Apple cheered the move, at least officially. Ron Okamoto, the company's vice president of worldwide developer relations, supplied several positive quotes for Microsoft's news release. "We're glad to see Virtual PC go into such good hands," he said.

Third, Microsoft makes money from selling Mac software. As obvious as this sounds, many forum-dwellers seem convinced that Microsoft would prefer obliterating the Mac platform to milking profit from it. It's true Microsoft has sought to intimidate Apple over the years, but it won't sacrifice profit merely to spite the Mac platform.

Fourth, in the case of Virtual PC, Microsoft also makes money from selling Windows licenses. Although you can buy a "bare" copy of Virtual PC and install your own Intel Corp.-based operating system, Connectix typically sells the product bundled with a version of Windows. The additional cost covered Microsoft's licensing fee, just as if you had bought a PC from Dell Computer Corp. with Windows pre-installed.

So while no one outside Microsoft knows for sure what the company has in mind for Virtual PC, the weight of the evidence indicates it won't be deep-sixed anytime soon.

That said, having Microsoft in control of the only commercially viable Windows emulator program for the Mac still is worrisome.

While Microsoft may well continue selling and occasionally upgrading Virtual PC, that doesn't preclude it from using its control of the software as leverage over Apple.

Microsoft's long and sordid track record of such behavior was the basis of the long-running U.S. Justice Department case against the company. As the company emerged largely unpunished from that trial, it has little to fear from perpetuating its practice of intimidating rivals.

Another point of concern is whether Microsoft will make significant changes to Virtual PC's flexibility in running practically any Intel processor-based operating system. In other words, the same copy of Virtual PC can run not just Windows 98 or XP, but also such non-Microsoft operating systems as Linux or IBM Corp.'s OS/2.

Microsoft, further, could hinder the ability to run non-Microsoft operating systems, or -- for that matter -- anything but the latest version of Windows. If nothing else, it's conceivable that Microsoft only will sell Virtual PC bundled with versions of Windows it still supports, which would mean no Windows 95 and, by early next year, no Windows 98.

This is an issue for Mac users because of Virtual PC's laggardly performance compared with that of an actual PC. Many Virtual PC users prefer running older versions of Windows for the speed gain -- and they most likely would lament the loss of that option.

John Rizzo, who operates MacWindows, a Web site devoted to compatibility issues between the two operating systems, said he is concerned that Microsoft may slow development of Virtual PC.

"Connectix was coming out with a major new version about every 18 months or so," Rizzo said. He cited the example of Internet Explorer for the Mac, which has not had a significant upgrade in more than two years.

If you're unhappy with Internet Explorer, however, there are numerous alternative Mac Web browsers, including Apple's own Safari. But since FWB Software Inc. discontinued SoftWindows in 2001, Virtual PC has stood as the sole viable PC emulator for the Mac.

Of the two alternatives, Lismore Software Systems Ltd.'s Blue Label emulator doesn't run in Mac OS X. Though inexpensive at $35, Blue Label doesn't come with a copy of Windows, instead requiring the user to buy and install it.

An open-source project known as "Bochs" also isn't an option for most Mac users, as it requires very sophisticated computer knowledge to use.

Unless another major competitor emerges, Microsoft will have a lock on Windows emulation for the Macintosh.

"It would be tough for a competitor," Rizzo said. "It would have to be a company that had a lot of resources to come up with an emulator and support it." And such a challenger would be up against Microsoft.

For Mac users watching this unsettling takeover of Virtual PC, much can be said but little done. We'll just have to hold our collective breath and hope that Mac BU gives Virtual PC the same care and feeding it has given Office for the Mac.

Yes, Microsoft could commit foul play, but that's not a foregone conclusion. It could just as easily make Virtual PC better.

In any case, it's too early to panic.