Imaginary Computers

The processor, or CPU, in many modern computers will feature “virtualization” — that is, it can lie to a piece of software and pretend that the software has full control of the computer, when in reality the software is running in a make-believe computer.

Virtualization is big business these days. It’s the norm for internet servers: the server which sends you your web pages often isn’t a real computer at all, it’s a “virtual box”. Hosting companies can run many virtual servers on the same real computer, each safely locked away in its virtual world. It saves them money because they have fewer bits of hardware to look after, they can offer different operating systems, and it’s more secure.

For the individual computer user, virtualization may seem esoteric and of interest only to advanced computer nerds. This is correct. But being such a nerd, I’ve played around with it.

What you can do with a virtual box is to boot up a completely different operating system. In my case, my PC is running Linux, but I can have a couple of instances of Windows, say, running in windows on the desktop, completely oblivious to the fact that they don’t have a real computer. I happened to have an unused Windows XP installation disk, which I used to create a virtual Windows PC.

Windows, doing what it does best.

Every time I start it up, it spends about two hours downloading the latest security updates, but that’s Windows for you. The only thing I’ve actually used it for is the software that connects to my TomTom sat nav, which will only run under Windows. (Therefore my next one won’t be a TomTom. Ironically, the TomTom itself runs Linux.)

And the other day, I created an imaginary Android tablet. Everything worked: the Google Play Store, Google Maps, Angry Birds. All the essentials. I’ve also tried different versions of Linux; and check this out: you can run the virtualization software on the virtual system and boot another operating system inside that. And another, and another, until it begins to get ridiculous. OK, it got ridiculous with three. Or two.

Today, it occurred to me to wonder if you can boot Apple’s OS X on a virtual box, and from what I’ve read on the internet (so it must be true) you certainly can, but when I read the details I decided that it was too much hassle to bother. The main thing was that there are a couple of bugs in OS X which cause it to crash, requiring modified virtualization code on the host PC. There’s also the matter of the hardware lock. Apple Macs these days are 100% normal PCs, identical to Dells, Lenovos, Acers and all the rest. Except there’s a custom chip which stores a 64-bit key code.

Naturally, you can fake the key chip in software, provided you can get the 64-bit key from somewhere (I’m guessing Google) but, frankly, I couldn’t be arsed. OS X just isn’t that interesting to me.

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