Whither virtual PC?

With Microsoft's purchase of the company that makes the only viable 'emulator' application for the Mac, does this spell the beginning of monopoly?

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.

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