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Microsoft and the Mac: Excuses, Excuses!

When I posted a commentary suggesting that Microsoft and other companies were afraid to build Mac products, because they couldn’t compete with Apple, you could see the excuses from a mile off. Clearly I hit a sore spot, and that was just as true with the departure of Virtual PC.

You see, if you believe what they had to say, Microsoft never loses a battle when it decides to cancel a product. It didn’t sell enough copies to make it profitable, or had some other strategic reason not to proceed with updates.

They forget that Microsoft can be remarkably persistent if it sees any opportunity at all. Take the digital music business. The “PlaysForSure” DRM scheme hasn’t done so well against the iPod, so the partners who are building products to support that technology can go take a hike. Time for Plan B (or is it C, I forget). Let there be Zune, and if that doesn’t work, I’m sure there will be another ill-considered brand name for the next attempt to gain a foothold in this market.

When Apple moved to Intel processors, you would have thought that Microsoft was in its element. There was already an Intel-based version of Virtual PC, and Microsoft had been developing products for such processors for years. But when asked about a Universal version, they waffled.

Now I don’t know the exact sales figures for the Mac version of Virtual PC, but I expect they were fairly decent, because it was, despite its performance limitations, the best way to run Windows on a PowerPC Mac. But with the new Mac architecture in production, the best you could get was the excuse that Microsoft was working with Apple on the best way to run Windows on those computers.

Nothing happened as the months passed, and folks managed to find a way to boot Windows on a MacIntel. Within weeks, Apple released the first boot camp beta. The early betas of Parallels Desktop appeared soon thereafter. Rather than build a better product, with superior Windows integration, and perhaps a better price for a bundle that included the operating system, Microsoft caved.

Was it really so hard, as they claimed, to build a Universal version of Virtual PC? Clearly, Parallels, a new company with no previous experience on the Mac, figured out a way to do it in record time. And they have been rushing out updates to support to new Macs, Windows Vista capability, with a lot more to come.

Another company, CodeWeavers, is hard at work with CrossOver, an application that lets you run a select number of Windows applications without any need for Windows.

Now maybe Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit was overwhelmed with the task of bringing millions of lines of code for Office into Xcode, Apple’s developer’s environment. They only recently completed the task, and won’t actually have a Universal version of Office ready to release for at least another year. Was there even time to allocate a dozen or so developers to labor on Virtual PC now that there were competitors established in that sandbox? And Microsoft isn’t quite the paragon of programming efficiency. The words lean and mean are not included in their company lexicon.

It’s not that Microsoft has only one product left for the Mac. Just the other day, Messenger 6.0 came out, and it runs fine on Intel-based Macs. True it lacks audio and video capability, but it appears that will eventually be added. And I do have lots of praise for their “Comfort” keyboards, most of which work well on Macs with native drivers, even if the color schemes are somewhat bland.

In fact, I like the people I’ve met from the Mac BU, and if I seem to be unduly critical of the company, it’s not because I’m a Microsoft or even a Windows basher by nature. I criticize Apple too when appropriate. Call me an equal-opportunity offender.

I do, however, believe that Microsoft’s best days lie in the past, even though it is certain to dominate the personal computer market for many years to come. I’ll just leave it at that.