Windows on a Mac: Virtually Perfect

New “virtualization” software lets Outlook and other apps work like Apple OS X programs

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

Excellent hardware and even better software are strong reasons for people to choose a Mac as their next computer. Many, no doubt, would also like to leave the world of Microsoft (MSFT) Windows behind. If you’re not quite ready to take that step, or work realities make it impossible, you actually can have your cake and eat it too.

For some time now, Macs have had the ability to run the many applications written for Windows, thanks to Apple (AAPL) software called Boot Camp. But you have to choose between Windows or the Mac OS X at startup and you end up with two separate systems sharing one physical computer. I suspect most Boot Camp users are running intense Windows-only games and want the maximum performance on Apple hardware.

A technology with the user-unfriendly name of virtualization provides a much better answer. New versions of two very good products, Parallels Desktop for Macintosh 4.0 and VMware Fusion 2.0 (both $80), let you run Windows programs on a Mac so that they look almost exactly like OS X programs and behave that way, too.

To use Parallels and Fusion, which require less technical proficiency than earlier versions, you need a fairly recent Mac and a copy of Windows. Once you have installed the software, you follow the on-screen instructions to set up a Windows “virtual machine.” Then you install the Windows programs you need, and you’re good to go.

I think the application that is the biggest deal for business Mac users is Microsoft Outlook. The Mac alternative, Microsoft Entourage, is a less-than-satisfactory substitute for Outlook’s mail, contact, and calendar functions. Entourage lacks Outlook’s small business contact manager. Critical collaboration features of the Microsoft Exchange corporate mail system are also missing.

Fusion and Parallels both offer three different ways to run Windows. You can turn your entire Mac display into a Windows desktop. You can run the Windows desktop in a separate pane. And, in perhaps the best approach, you can run each Windows program so it looks like a regular Mac application.

Fusion and Parallels also let you share files between OS X and Windows. And they can be set up so the contents of key folders, such as Documents and Pictures, are duplicated in both systems. This makes it easy to save an attachment in Outlook and use it in a Mac application, or vice versa. The result? Workplaces that have been hostile to Macs may relent. Without much effort, a company can clone its standard Windows setup, including all security policies, and install it as a virtual machine on a Mac that then lets employees access the corporate network.

The implications of virtual machines may go beyond the traditional Mac-vs.-Windows competition. VMware and Parallels make versions that let you install Windows virtual machines on any Windows PC. It sounds illogical but makes some interesting things possible. You can run two completely separate systems on the same hardware—one for secure corporate use, the other loaded with personal programs the company doesn’t want to support. Computers of the not-too-distant future may include virtual machines with dedicated jobs, such as a secure setup used only for online finance and another for Web browsing.

Complicated software and the limitations of earlier microprocessors restricted the use of virtualization. Now, with simpler software and much more powerful computers, the age of virtual machines has arrived.

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