A major barrier to running Windows software lies in the different technologies, or firmware, used to start the Intel Mac and the PC. The latter uses archaic BIOS firmware that's 20 years old, while the former uses Intel's new EFI, or Extensible Firmware Interface, specification.
This obstacle should start to fade when Microsoft releases EFI-supporting Vista, the next generation of Windows, later this year, Needham said.
But a Microsoft development manager reportedly said this week at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco that the first version of Vista would not support EFI, and there was no timetable for adding support in later versions.
Microsoft on Friday confirmed that Vista would not initially support EFI.
"At this time, Windows will not support native EFI boot until these systems have 64-bit capable processors," the company said in an emailed statement.
Intel Macs and home PCs are currently 32-bit systems.
Nevertheless, there are a number of companies working on products that would run Windows apps on a Mactel through a process called virtualization, which enables more than one OS to run on the same computer without rebooting.
Microsoft, oddly enough, has said it plans to deliver virtualization software, called Virtual PC, for Intel Macs by 2007, the report said. Microsoft acquired the technology through the purchase of Connectix.
Similar products are also expected from other organizations, including VMWare, a subsidiary of EMC; and an open-source coalition called Wine, the study said.
For its part, Apple has said it would not sell or support Windows on the Mac, but would do nothing in its hardware design to prevent others from running the competing OS.
"While the individual initiatives to enable Windows apps to run on Intel Macs may appear chaotic, we believe it's only a matter of time before they coalesce in a working product," Needham said.
Apple Computer Inc. would stand to sell 1 million more Macs to current PC users, if the new Intel-based Macs could run Windows applications at the same speed and performance as PCs, a study showed.
However, before such a windfall could be realized, a number of technical hurdles would have to be crossed. Among the key problems is the use of different technology to start Windows and Apple's OS X, investment banking firm Needham & Co. LLC said in a report issued this week.
Needham's study of Mac and Windows users found a switching rate among the latter of between 11.7 percent and 13.5 percent, if the new Macs could eventually run Windows applications natively, which means with no performance degradation. The latter number would translate into a 22 percent increase in Mac shipments over 2005, or 1 million machines, boosting Apple's share of the home computer market to 9.2 percent from its current 5.1 percent, Needham said.
The study, however, is biased. The report was based on a survey of 255 students at eight major universities. Apple's share of the education market is far higher than among the general population, indicating that students are more likely to switch.
Among the survey respondents, 25 percent used Macs, Needham said. In the kindergarten-through-12 market, Apple holds a 14.8 percent share in the United States, according to International Data Corp.
In acknowledging the bias, Needham said there was "no precise way" to scale the survey results to determine Apple's potential boost in the home market, which is its largest potential market. Nevertheless, the findings were dramatic enough to warrant a second study, which Needham plans to do.
"A follow up survey that targets home users is clearly warranted and one we shall attempt," the report, co-authored by analysts Charlie Wolf and John Lynch, said.
Apple unveiled in January the first of its Macs to run on Intel Corp. processors, which also drive Windows machines. Since Apple chief executive
Steve Jobs announced the switch from IBM's PowerPC chip in June 2005, the industry has been abuzz with speculation on when the new "Mactel" machines would run Windows applications.
Among the key reasons many PC users do not switch is the fact they would have to buy all new software, which would be expensive. In addition, many software makers do not sell Mac versions of their Windows products.