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Is Windows App Envy a Thing of the Past?

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 26, 2009 4:00 AM PT

A few years ago, a computer buyer who wanted an Apple Mac may have been forced back into the PC store in order to run the applications he already had, needed, or wanted. Now, though, the Mac and its OS X operating system have risen in popularity and permeate the consciousness of computer buyers around the world -- thank the iPhone and iPod for that.

Is Windows App Envy a Thing of the Past?

So, is Windows application envy a thing of the past for Mac owners?

Take Microsoft, for example. The company ditched its Internet Explorer for the Mac browser years ago, but it has delivered increasingly robust versions of its Microsoft Office suite of applications. While previous versions were plagued with compatibility problems among the different documents created from each of the many different application versions over the years, compatibility between Mac-created Microsoft Word documents, for example, and Windows-created Word documents is now seamless for many users.

Plus, Apple's own office suite, iWork, is now able to create rich word processing, spreadsheet or presentation documents that are compatible with Microsoft Office on a PC -- with some exceptions, of course. Again, though, the compatibility is much improved over years past.

Meanwhile, more companies and developers are creating solutions specific to Mac owners across a variety of application types. Most of Google's apps also work with Mac OS X; Yahoo's online videos are now compatible with Mac OS X, and of course there's a world of Web-based social networking tools that are browser-based, and thus Mac compatible -- think Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, to name the big three.

Apple Grows Its Own

Of course, Apple has long been creating big, useful apps for consumers, like the aforementioned iWork. Others, like iTunes, have become ubiquitous on both Macs and PCs (credit the iPod and iTunes store). On the Mac, iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD have taken home media creation to levels many PC owners can only imagine. For professionals, there's the highly regarded Final Cut Pro, which is part of Final Cut Studio, which is used for video creation. For still images, there's Aperture.

Want a dedicated POP or IMAP mail client? The aptly named Mail does the trick, along with all the standard apps most any consumer might need like iCal (calendar), Address Book (contacts), and iChat (instant messaging).

While Apple has competed with third parties for some applications, it doesn't have a lock on everything. For photo editing and image creation, Adobe produces the pro-level Photoshop series in addition to the lighter Photoshop Elements application -- both of which are available in Windows versions, too. While we're talking about Adobe, its highly used Flash architecture works to let developers and content producers deliver Rich Internet Apps (RIA) via browser-based plug-ins, which, of course, work on the Mac. Even Microsoft, with its competing Silverlight framework, includes plug-ins for Mac owners.

With so many solid options covering the core bases for most consumers, how do things stand now? Are there any major gaps?

"Generally speaking, it's not an issue nowadays because more apps are available for the Mac, and because there's always the option of running Windows on an Intel-based Mac," Avi Greengart, research director of consumer devices for Current Analysis, told MacNewsWorld.

Let's Get Virtual

In order to run Windows on an Intel-based Mac, the Mac owner would need to have a licensed copy of a Windows operating system, which could then be installed on a partition via Apple's Boot Camp. Boot Camp lets a Mac owner boot their Mac directly into a non-Mac OS X operating system. Other options, like the popular Parallels Desktop for Mac or VMware's Fusion, let users run a different operating system in a virtual environment right alongside Mac OS X.

By running Windows in a virtual environment, a Mac user can essentially run almost any Windows application alongside their Mac applications. The downside: cost. You've got to have a license for Windows, pay extra for the virtualization software, and then likely buy the Windows-based app.

For now, though, let's get back to native apps and some of the holes that exist.

"The key apps I miss when I run OS X are Microsoft Outlook -- Entourage is not the same -- and the encryption apps that come standard on many USB memory keys," Greengart said. While there are Mac encryption programs, they tend not to be compatible, he noted.

"Right now, there's no encryption app for memory keys that works on both Windows and a Mac -- it's either/or," he said.

"RoboForm is the only must-have app for Windows I can think of, but 1Password fills that void pretty well on the Mac," Sven Rafferty, founder the IT and Web solutions company hyperSven, told MacNewsWorld. "QuickBooks for Mac is better than past versions, though the Windows version still is better.

"I think there are more killer apps for the Mac now than Windows," he added. With Parallels, VMware, and Sun's VirtualBox, there is little need to stay away from the Mac now, he noted. Plus, as OS X becomes more and more popular, there will be less and less of a need to run Windows at all.

"Outside of certain professional-specific applications -- for, say, doctors and lawyers -- I can't really see how Win32 has a hold back from the Mac anymore. I know many people that have long been entrenched with the PC that have come over to the Apple side and are either moving to a Mac version of their old software or just running it in a virtual machine," he said.

"In fact, I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'It runs faster on my Mac in VMware then it did on my old PC,'" he noted.

Windows Still Owns the Enterprise

There is one big area in which Macs still falter when it comes to application compatibility: the enterprise. While many businesses have shifted applications to Web-based interfaces, many legacy apps (and even new applications in development) focus on Windows-only versions. Heck, there are plenty of businesses that want the Windows XP virtualization option that's built into the upcoming Windows 7 -- just so they can continue easily running their legacy applications.

Microsoft Outlook vs. the Mac's Entourage is one of the biggest areas of envy for Mac users.

"Microsoft Outlook is still very different on a PC than it is on Entourage on a Mac, and there's things you can't do with Entourage from an enterprise standpoint," Ben Bajarin, director of the consumer technology practice for Creative Strategies, told MacNewsWorld.

"I know a lot of executives who really like OS X and just run Outlook in a virtual environment," he added.

There are some smaller professional organizations that have best-of-breed applications designed specifically for vertical niches -- like dental offices, for example -- but even some of these applications might be heading toward a platform-agnostic, cloud-based delivery service.

"Once it's cloud and browser-based, who cares what platform it runs on when you can get it online?" Bajarin noted.

What About the Developers?

Of course, you can't have a robust environment without third-party developers creating new applications for it. Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, which will hit in June, sold out in record time this year, though it's safe to say that much of the WWDC interest is coming from iPhone app developers and not necessarily a major new influx of Mac OS X developers.

Still, there's a definite halo effect occurring here.

"The interesting point of that [WWDC and the iPhone] is how many iPhone developers may become OS X developers because they like the platform or are getting more familiar with the platform," Bajarin said.

"A couple of years ago, I would ask questions to developers about developing for the Mac, and they would say the Mac was more difficult -- and that wasn't really true, they just didn't have any confidence for it because they had no experience with it. The interesting thing about the iPhone, though, is that you get a very base level of Cocoa and a number of other core programing languages that make a nice smooth transition to OS X. So by the nature of the beast, there's more developers realizing that in some cases, [app development for a Mac] is easier," he explained.

If the perceived barriers to new application development on Mac OS X are falling away, can we expect to see an influx of new apps hit the platform? Well, yes and no.

"There's a lot of apps that aren't written for OS X -- say in the media development area, like Pinnacle Studio -- because the Mac comes with great software for video editing and photo creation. I hear from a lot of developers in that space who just don't think it makes sense for them to offer a Mac version," Bajarin said.

The Real Killer Apps

Finally, there's one last vertical segment that still tends to blow the Mac out of the water: games.

"There's always the games, that's the killer, and they just don't work very well under virtualization," Mel Beckman, a Mac-using independent network and Internet security consultant, told MacNewsWorld.

"It's kind of sad, to make a platform decision based on what games run on it," he added. "But other than that, I can't really think of anything. The only thing that doesn't work well is games."

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