Software giant Microsoft Corp. has acquired the assets of Connectix Corp., a maker of software that allows users of Apple Computer’s Macintosh platform to run Windows-based applications. Some educators say they fear the move could hinder their ability to support a cross-platform computing environment in their schools.

Microsoft purchased the technology of the privately held company for an undisclosed amount on Feb. 19, citing its potential to help current Microsoft customers easily migrate to new operating system platforms while continuing to leverage investments in their existing applications.

The move could harbor serious implications for schools nationwide, however, because it calls into question the future of Connectix’s Virtual PC for Mac product—a popular tool among school customers that enables Macintosh users to run Windows-based applications, access PC networks, exploit certain Windows-based internet features, and share files with PC users seamlessly.

The software is particularly useful in schools, which often contain a mix of Windows and Macintosh computers, as a way to ensure that users of different platforms can swap files easily and use the same applications.

According to Microsoft, the more than 1 million schools and businesses that depend on Connectix’s Virtual PC for Mac to provide interoperability between various PC and Mac computers have little to fear.

“Microsoft is committed to the continued development and sales of Connectix Virtual PC products,” said Tim McDonough, director of marketing and business development for Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit. “[Our] goal is to provide the best Office software for the Mac platform, making it seamless for teachers and students to communicate with their Windows counterparts.”

Still, some educators question whether Microsoft is sincere in its pledge to develop and support a product that essentially enables customers to make better use of a chief competitor’s operating system.

“As a user of Virtual PC in my school to run a Windows-only program on Macintosh [computers], I am concerned that this product might not be supported under Microsoft ownership,” said Christine McIntosh, a library media specialist and school technology coordinator for Bernheim Middle School in Shepherdsville, Ky.

“The program has allowed my school, which is cross-platform, to run a program that is state-mandated. While our state technology master plan called for all state-adopted programs to exist on both Macintosh and Windows platforms, the solution for running this program on all computers was the use of Virtual PC on the Macintosh side.”

Microsoft insists the move is in no way intended as a first step toward phasing out Virtual PC for Mac. The deal, it said, was intended to fulfill the growing demands of its customers.

“The purchase of Connectix products and technologies helps deliver a new suite of solutions that enable Microsoft customers to reduce costs, simplify operations, and improve IT service delivery,” McDonough said. “[Virtual machine] technology and products enable customers to reduce total cost of ownership and decrease operational expenditures. Microsoft is committed to improving customer return on investment, and this purchase helps Microsoft achieve this business goal.”

Through the acquisition, the Redmond, Wash.-based software company also acquired rights to several other Connectix brands, including its Virtual PC for Windows software and its not-yet-released virtual server product unit.

Virtual PC for Windows gives current Windows customers a tool to migrate to Windows XP or Windows 2000 Professional operating systems more easily, Microsoft said. The product also supports legacy applications and provides a slew of other resources, including technical support, increased call-center access, and education and training programs.

On the virtual server front, Microsoft said it also plans to continue developing this product. In beta-testing before the acquisition, Connectix’s virtual server technology was found to consolidate multiple Windows NT 4.0 servers and their applications onto a single server system, Microsoft said, thus driving down costs and increasing efficiency. The product is scheduled for release before the end of 2003, Microsoft said.

As for the 100 employees at Connectix, the future is uncertain. In the short term, the company will continue to build and support its virtual machine technology, said Maryann McGregor, vice president of marketing and communications for Connectix. However, Microsoft will assume full control over Connectix when a transition period ends Aug. 15.

Microsoft has said it will bring in a number of software engineers to fill several technical positions at Connectix, but it has not yet announced the fate of the remaining employees. According to McGregor, some employees will be transferred to Microsoft’s home offices in Redmond, while others will travel to Mountain View, Calif., where a large percentage of Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit is based. McGregor did not know whether any positions would be eliminated during the transition.

Regardless of impending shakeups, McGregor said she sees no immediate indication that Microsoft will alter any of the products Connectix offers to schools. “Microsoft said it is committed to ongoing support of our products,” she said. “We feel confident that [Microsoft] will continue to add to the depth of [its] Macintosh Business Unit.” Microsoft has been “very supportive” and has an “aggressive plan,” she added.

Even the folks at Apple seemed to take the deal in stride.

“Adding Virtual PC to its product portfolio is yet another example of Microsoft’s continued commitment to the Mac platform,” said Ron Okamoto, vice president of worldwide developer relations at Apple. “For years, Virtual PC has helped people who want to own a Mac but need to run legacy PC applications. We’re glad to see Virtual PC go into such good hands.”

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Connectix Corp.
http://www.connectix.com

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com