21st: Virtual machine dreams

Getting a Mac to impersonate a PC is no longer so difficult. But it's still awfully slow.

Published January 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Back in the days when Macintosh was riding high, Windows was cranky and immature and most PC users still worked in DOS, Mac users entertained themselves with a popular screensaver gag: it blanked out the familiar Mac desktop, replacing it with a black screen and a lone "C:\" prompt. The meaning was plain: This was consignment to DOS hell, command-line purgatory. No sane Mac owner would desire such a situation; but thankfully, a touch of the mouse or keyboard would suspend the screensaver and return you to your comfortable home.

Operating systems are often discussed as if they were religions, but we relate to them much more like houses, spaces in which we dwell to work or play. Once we settle into one, we expect to stay a while, and we make changes only reluctantly.

Today's Mac users aren't necessarily preparing to abandon their beloved homes. But as they gather today for their biennial Macworld conclave -- the first since Apple killed off the Mac clone market, further narrowing the Mac horizon -- they are looking around and pondering their options. For instance, veteran Mac developer Dave Winer recently started up a mailing list for Mac devotees who are making a switch or trying to find their way around the world of Windows 95 and NT.

Mac users are often faced today with the distressing problem that some piece of software they want to use is unavailable for their machine. Apple (and a couple of other companies) saw this coming years ago and started making Mac plug-in cards bearing PC processor chips -- but these tended to install only problematically and cost a fortune. With a decent PC now selling for well under $1,000, that strategy no longer makes much sense.

There's another approach: a piece of software that mimics the workings of a Windows PC within the Mac environment. Like the old gag screensaver, such software takes over the Mac screen and makes it impersonate a PC; but it's more than a fagade, a Potemkin village operating system -- it actually works. The software builds what's known as a "virtual machine" -- a kind of model, built entirely out of software code, that allows a host computer to impersonate or "emulate" another kind of system. The advantage is that software code can often be much cheaper to develop (and is always much cheaper to produce in quantity) than the hardware it's imitating; the disadvantage is that it is always going to operate more slowly, since each operation of the mimicked computer must be translated for the host to understand.

The pioneer in this field was a product called SoftWindows, which took advantage of the then-speedy first generation of PowerPC chips to emulate Windows on a Mac. Expensive and often intolerably slow, SoftWindows never made much sense to me. But when a less expensive competing product named Virtual PC arrived last year from Connectix, the company behind RAM Doubler and Quick Cam, I decided to experiment.

My motivation, like that of most Mac users driven to such lengths, was a desire to use a piece of PC software. I'd grown to love and depend on a Windows-based personal organizer called Ecco in the many years I'd worked on a PC; since moving into a Mac-based office I'd searched for substitutes, but though Mac products like Claris Organizer had many fine features, none worked quite like Ecco. And there's no prospect of a version of Ecco for the Mac.

Installing Virtual PC was remarkably simple. The most difficult parts were finding the registration code in the accompanying literature and disabling a Norton utility that kept reporting a crash -- incorrectly, as I discovered after repeated reboots sent me poring through the "Read Me" file. You need to free up a chunk of your Mac hard drive (160 or 300 MB) for the PC files, and you'd better have a good 16 MB of RAM on top of whatever memory you need to run the Mac system (a couple of years ago this would have been a serious impediment, but RAM is now so cheap it's hardly an issue).

Once you're done with the installation, you run Virtual PC on your Mac desktop like any other application: Start it up and the familiar wavy-windows-against-blue-sky Win95 logo appears, a little unsettlingly, to take over your Mac desktop. It's simple to switch back and forth between the two systems, and almost as simple to share files between them. Virtual PC communicated easily with my Mac's floppy and CD-ROM drives and our office network's Apple printer. When you're done, VirtualPC will let you save its current "state" -- essentially freezing its whole system in time -- so you don't have to reboot Windows and relaunch your programs the next time you run it.

So far, so good. I was ready to get Ecco running and restore my life to some semblance of order. The software installed easily; I imported my old address book from Claris Organizer with no trouble. There was only one problem: Entering just about anything into Ecco involved a minuscule but maddening lag between each keystroke and its appearance on the Virtual PC screen. It felt like typing through sludge. For a program on which I intended to run my life -- tracking appointments, storing contacts and outlining projects and schedules -- it just wasn't going to work.

Emulation is always slower than the real thing: That's a cardinal rule of computer design. The faster your processor, the more nimble its emulation of another system ought to be. My Mac was obviously panting and huffing in its effort to impersonate a Pentium. Connectix says you'll need a minimum of a 180 mhz PowerPC 603e processor in your Mac to run Virtual PC, and that's exactly what I've got. I don't doubt that it would run faster with a more powerful chip, like a 200 or 233 mhz PowerPC 604e -- or, even better, one of the zippy new G3 chips. But for the money that kind of Mac processor upgrade costs, I might just as well have bought a full-fledged PC system.

Virtual PC is a pretty cool product. There's something wonderfully ironic about turning the entirety of a PC's genetic inheritance of Intel chip instructions and Microsoft operating-system code into a little application running on a Mac. At Macworld this week, Connectix is set to announce an upgrade to Virtual PC that it promises will be 25 to 40 percent faster. Meanwhile, SoftWindows' parent company, Insignia, has dropped prices, sped up its product and created its own PC emulator called RealPC (SoftWindows emulated the Windows operating system but not the underlying DOS system).

All of this is great. But by the time the emulators become genuinely usable with last year's software, the software industry will have released a new generation of products that require the full power of, say, Intel's new Pentium II chip. Last year's Ecco may run well on next year's Virtual PC, but the latest Ecco upgrade will have become a more hulking beast. This is the infernal pas-de-deux of the computer industry: Software developers and hardware manufacturers load each other's products up so that our systems never feel quite fast enough. Patchworks of fixes, upgrades, work-arounds and emulators can all be useful -- but they're never fully satisfying. In the end, the logic of the computer market always points in the same direction. It creates and then reinforces a drumbeat in your head: Buy a new system. Which looks like what I'll end up doing sooner or later.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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