Windows Interoperability

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Painful as it is to see, the computing world is dominated by Windows machines. Although we Mac users may choose not to work with these machines, we can't avoid working with their owners. On the plus side, developments over the past 5 years have made this easier than ever. We can share files, applications, peripherals, and even operating systems with PC owners.

Note that this section is titled "interoperability" rather than "compatibility." The distinction is subtle, but important. I'm less interested in running the Windows OS or Windows application on my Mac; what I'm really interested in is surviving amongst the Wintel herd. After all, if I can use the same files, same peripherals, and same websites, then I can co-exist despite having a superior machine :)

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Many data files from PCs can be used just fine on a Macintosh. In most cases, data is data, and you need accomplish only two things in order to use a PC file &em; move the file and find a compatible application.

There are some technical differences between data file structures between Macs and PCs (primarily character set issues), but most modern applications are smart enough to handle the differences or make the appropriate conversions.

The three primary ways to share files with PCs are email, disks and networking.

Email is one of the easiest ways to share small files, especially if the machines are not physically proximate. Most common data files will survive transmission via email. Just use the Attachment feature of your email program (usually they have a paper clip button or icon) to attach the file to any email, and the recipient should be able to open the attachment with a compatible application.

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Of course email can be less practical if the files are larger than a megabyte or so. "Sneakernet" is a common term for the next most common way of sharing files &emdsh; putting files on a removable disk of some type and walking to the next room with it.

Sneakernet is most commonly used in reference to floppy disks, but CDs, Zip disks, Jaz disks, Syquest disks, etc. can be used cross-platform as well.

A file created on a Mac has invisible "TYPE" and "Creator" codes which tell the Finder which application to use if you double-click on it. A file created on a PC has a three letter extension (e.g. .txt, .xls, .doc) which allows Windows to figure things out.

Apple has bundled software called File Exchange (previously PC Exchange) with every version of the Mac OS since the early 7's. This software allows the Mac OS to recognize PC/DOS formatted media (disks) and also helps the OS determine which type of file is represented by which DOS extension(s). If, for some reason, File Exchange isn't doing it's job, and you get an error when you double-click a PC/DOS file, you can usually open it from within the application (using File:Open) or by dragging and dropping the file's icon onto the application's icon.

To use a Mac file on a PC, you can usually just add the appropriate extension onto the filename, and then copy the file onto a PC formatted disk.

Earlier versions of Iomega's free Zip Tools didn't allow a Mac user to reformated at Zip disk in DOS format, but the most current version has fixed this oversight.

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The easiest way to share files and services is over a network. Obviously, network administration is complicated enough to be the foundation of a job, career, company, or entire industry, so I can't cover more than a smidgen here. But I can at least go over the very basics as they relate to Mac and PC interoperability: Back to the top of the page.


Most comparisons/holy-wars about Macs vs. PCs include some mention of the vast differential in the number of applications available for each platform. The truth is, for most users, you can obtain most of the same functionality on a Mac as you can on a PC: Actually that last point is critical for several classes of apps beyond accounting. Many analysts see the "hosted" application model as the future of desktop computing, and many companies are betting their futures on it. If it becomes reality, then Mac application parity will take a large step forward indeed.

Of course processor-intensive apps (e.g. graphics, games and CAD) will remain local for a good long time (possibly forever), but the Mac is already at parity or making great strides in some of these areas already.

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The Web

The beauty of the Internet is that it's supposed to be platform agnostic. Most of the browsers in the world run on Windows 95 or 98, but most of the servers in the world do not. This is usually invisible to the user, since all modern computers speak the same TCP/IP, HTTP and HTML. With a few exceptions, what you can view on your PC I can view on my Mac.

Of course nothing ever really achieves the ideal, and there are some plugins and browser features that don't correspond exactly across the two major desktop platforms.

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By peripherals, I generally mean anything and everything external that gets plugged into your computer: Back to the top of the page.

Upgrade cards

There's no good news here for 6100 owners. Nubus and PDS are, for all practical purposes, Mac-only, and there's no crossover or compatibility.

But for modern Mac owners (PCI or newer), many of the upgrade cards for PCs can also be used on your Mac. PCI is PCI and AGP is AGP, so all they require are software drivers and sometimes (for video cards), a flashable BIOS. Many VooDoo cards can be flashed with a Mac BIOS and used with public beta drivers from 3DFX. Likewise, many Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet cards are available with Mac drivers.

Apple's recent success and their continued adoption of key standards like 2x AGP and 4x AGP will make card compatibility better and better. There are persistent rumors of high-end 3D card manufacturers coming to the Mac very soon.

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Last updated: 5/11/99

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