Coming next to the Mac: Linux and Windows?

Momentum is building, albeit unevenly, to bring alternate operating systems to the Intel-based Macintosh computers that Apple Computer recently released. Despite a lack of encouragement from Apple, operating system vendors and enthusiasts are working to make Linux or Windows run with the Mac OS X already installed on the latest Apple iMacs and MacBook Pro laptops. The iMacs are available now; the new laptops are due out later this month. Both of the "Mactel" lines sport Core Duo processors from Intel.

Mandriva, the third-largest Linux distributor, said its version of Linux is already compatible with the 32-bit dual-core Centrino processors, which are also used in conventional Linux and Windows PCs. While technical issues, for now at least, prevent booting Mandriva on Apple hardware, a fully compatible version of Mandriva Linux "could appear sometime in the second quarter of 2006," according to David Barth, vice-president of engineering at the Paris-based company.

Canonical, which is behind the fast-rising Ubuntu Linux distribution, said that despite current technical hangups, a Mactel-compatible version of Ubuntu could be available within the next eight months, when development on the next major release of Ubuntu is expected to finish, according to Jane Weideman, a spokesperson for the England-based company.

Other Linux distributors are less definitive with their plans. Linux market leader Red Hat Inc. has denied earlier reports that it's actively rewriting its Linux distribution to run on Mactel hardware. And Novell is waiting for the open-source community to provide a technical solution.

Linux long available for older Macs

Many flavors of Linux already run on Mac hardware using PowerPC chips, which Apple is phasing out because of chip-speed limitations and excess heat. The main problem with getting Linux to boot on the new Apple computers is the newish Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) it uses to connect the operating system to the hardware and peripherals at startup.

EFI was developed by Microsoft and Intel as a faster, less complicated successor to the 2-decade-old BIOS technology used on non-Apple computers. However, apart from servers and workstations running Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip, most PCs today continue to come with BIOS installed.

Linux has been able to boot on Itanium machines using EFI for a number of years using a bootloader program called ELILO. According to Brett Johnson, a software engineer who maintains the ELILO open-source project, tweaking ELILO so Linux can run on 32-bit EFI systems such as the new Macs is possible, though he isn't working on a solution himself.

"ELILO should just work, and load the Linux kernel just fine," Johnson, who works at Hewlett-Packard's open-source lab wrote in an e-mail. "There will probably need to be some work done in the kernel itself to recognize the IntelMac hardware though (like for providing a console, etc.)"

Johnson declined to comment on whether he had been contacted by any Linux vendors, though he noted that traffic to his SourceForge project's Web page tripled in January from the month before.

Barth agreed with Johnson that the problem is not hard to solve. Mandriva has used ELILO to boot its Linux onto IA-64 machines as well as 32-bit PowerPC-based Macs. With the Mactel hardware, the company's engineers have identified potential problems only "in some small hardware parts like fan control" as they look to make Mandriva compatible, he said.

Weideman, however, said that uncertainties over how the Apple hardware displays graphics will make porting Ubuntu "fairly complicated."

"It is an entirely new graphics chip set, which we are as yet unable to drive until such a time as ATI releases the specifications," Weideman said. Other drivers need to be verified through hands-on testing of the hardware, which Canonical does not yet own.

Still, Weideman said it's likely that the upcoming Ubuntu 6.10 -- which goes into development in April and will be officially released in October -- will run on Apple's Intel-based machines.

At least one version of Linux likely won't make it to Mactel hardware: Yellow Dog Linux, a popular distribution specially built for Apple's PowerPC Macs. It won't be ported to the IntelMacs, said Kai Staats, CEO of its maker, Terra Soft Solutions.

Windows users want in on the action, too

Interest is also growing among Windows users, who cite the operating system's unparalleled selection of software and want to port it to run on Apple's stylish hardware. A Microsoft spokesman confirmed that neither Windows Vista nor XP will work "out of the box" with the MacIntels. The reason, said Microsoft, is because Apple decided not to install a piece of firmware optional to EFI called a Compatibility Support Module that was available from Intel.

With Microsoft publicly taking a laissez-faire stance, grass-roots efforts have emerged to port XP over. One Houston enthusiast, Colin Nederkoorn, has put up a Web site, windowsxp.onmac.net, where he has raised about US$11,000 so far in small PayPal donations as a reward to anyone providing a solution. Progress so far has been slow. "The furthest they have gotten at this stage is to have Windows Vista crash while booting in Safe Mode and to load ELILO, but not much success beyond that," he said.

Virtual solution?

Some say the simplest way to get Linux or Windows running on the new Apple hardware is to wait for emulation or virtualization software. One small company, iEmulator.com, expects to bring its Windows emulation software to the Mactel machines by the end of this month, said John Czlonka, general manager for the Edmonton, Alberta-based company, though he acknowledged that there will be a heavy performance hit.

Virtualization market leader VMware is also "very interested" in bringing its software to the Mactel platform, although the Calif.-based company has nothing to announce at this point, a spokesperson said.

Moshe Bar, a technology entrepreneur, said he has been able to run both FreeBSD Unix and Debian Linux on a new Mactel machine using virtualization software from XenSource, which he co-founded. But Apple's protectiveness of its hardware specs has so far prevented Bar from getting the graphics, sound or Wi-Fi to work.

"I'm a text command-line kind of guy, so it's OK," he said. "Given enough time, someone should be able to make the drivers work."

Bar said that Windows won't be able to run on MacIntels on top of Xen until the summer or fall. By that time, most PC vendors, including Apple, will have begun shipping desktop computers with processors that have Intel's Virtualization Technology built-in.

Getting Mac OS X to run on top of Xen, is ironically the most difficult task, Bar says, because OS X has its own virtualization technology that interferes with Xen's. The work-around, Bar says, is for users to simply set up their MacIntel for dual-boot: Mac OS X or Xen, with the latter supporting Linux, Unix and eventually, Windows on top.

Bar said he plans to release a how-to guide on the Internet.

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Eric Lai

Computerworld

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