Real-world lessons from users working with dual-boot Macs

Introducing a virtualized desktop to users needing to run Windows apps on Macs seems like a good idea until you start logging all the support calls. Erik Eckel offers a reality check.

Introducing a virtualized desktop to users needing to run Windows apps on Macs seems like a good idea until you start logging all the support calls. Erik Eckel offers a reality check.


Enterprise administrators sometimes forget a critical fact: users rarely possess technical proficiency. Sure, you're familiar with virtualized operating system environments. Technology professionals, too, are adept at navigating the myriad printing, peripheral, disk partition, networking, performance, licensing and other issues that inevitably arise. But users? Not so much. This is why I've decided that introducing a virtualized desktop environment to enable running Windows inside Mac OS X, is a mistake. At least for most enterprise users, and at least for the foreseeable future.

Complicating already complicated processes

Computers, VPNs, business applications, wireless networking, printing, and even simple document formatting and mail merge processes are enough to overwhelm many users. Adding the complexities of a virtualized desktop environment further complicates tasks many users already find perplexing.

The great potential promised by VMware and Parallels have failed to materialize in the real world, at least for my users. Software that was to enable simple dual-boot Windows support has frequently failed to deliver simple operation. Unless the user possesses sufficient technical chops, virtual desktop environments have largely proved frustrating.

I first began encouraging users to test third-party Mac dual-boot applications some five years ago. That's when unusually large numbers of complaints began arriving from Mac users running Windows inside Mac OS X using a virtualized environment.

What goes wrong with a dual-boot Mac?

The resulting complaints have never been limited to a single issue. Instead, criticism stretches across a broad spectrum of pain, encompassing everything from sluggish performance to the inability to properly connect USB peripherals.

For example, I've had to troubleshoot sophisticated color printers that would not print properly. I've had to try synchronizing BlackBerries with Outlook when the virtualized Windows installation couldn't even see the handset.

Other users could never successfully navigate the integrated A/B switch for printing within one popular platform, resulting in panicked calls late in the evening, as critical documents couldn't be printed. Many complained of significant performance limitations, both in Mac OS X and Windows, when running the virtualized environment. Still others failed to understand the need to initiate and suspend virtual Windows sessions, resulting in frustration, lost data and general dissatisfaction.

What to do?

My experience suggests enterprise users are better off using Boot Camp to enable running Windows and powering Windows applications on a Mac. In fact, with the exception of a few users complaining they cannot access their iTunes on their Mac (technically, a problem that can be remedied by migrating those iTunes to the Windows installation), I can recall no real world complaints associated with running Windows using Boot Camp.

That's how I've chosen to load my MacBook Pro, which receives heavy use each and every day. It's the main system from which I operate and manage my business. I have encountered no performance troubles, printing issues, or peripheral connectivity problems, even though I regularly use the laptop to join dozens of different networks.

Organizations that must, for whatever reason, deploy virtualized Windows environments run inside Mac OS X should plan on adequately training users to understand the desktop virtualization software they receive. Training shouldn't be limited to just a ten minute session consisting of "click here, click that, select this and start that" instruction. Instead, a fairly comprehensive session should be scheduled to ensure users are taught the platform's limitations, common workarounds, and other best practices for maximizing productivity using the virtualized installation of choice.

Enterprise administrators, too, should provide users with written documentation summarizing all the related steps and instruction. Without such reinforcement, my experience shows it's likely you'll spend an inordinate amount of time fielding support calls related to these issues.

What do you recommend?

What method does your enterprise recommend? When users must run Windows or Windows applications inside their Mac OS X installations, what software and instructional methods does your organization choose?

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Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

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