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Apple Computer on Wednesday took aim at the mainstream personal computer market by introducing software that will allow customers to run Microsoft‘s Windows XP operating system on Macintosh computers.

The move represents a challenge to PC rivals such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo, whose computers already run on the Microsoft operating system.

It also marks a new chapter in the relationship between Apple and Microsoft, whose software rivalry took centre stage in the early days of the personal computer in the 1980s.

Microsoft’s decision in the 1980s to license its DOS operating system to IBM and other PC makers led it to become the default choice for most computer users, while relegating Apple to a niche market of creative users.

Windows powers more than 90 per cent of the world’s PCs, while Apple’s OS X proprietary system has just 2-4 per cent of the market.

Michael Gartenberg at Jupiter Research said Apple’s announcement represented a “bold tactical move” to gain market share from PC rivals.

”The Dells and the HPs of this world have never had to compete directly with Apple,” said Paul Jackson at Forrester Research. “Now they’re faced with Apple selling what are effectively Wintel [Windows/Intel] boxes.”

However, some analysts cautioned that any gains for Apple were likely to be incremental.

“Unless…OS X is [already] more appealing to you, you are probably not going to run out and buy a Mac,” said Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner. “For one thing, they’re more expensive.”

Although Apple’s proprietary software platform has attracted a loyal cult following, its limited audience has long been seen as one of the key hurdles to mainstream success for the computer maker.

Apple made the new software - called Boot Camp - available for download on Wednesday. The software, which will run on Macs powered by Intel chips, will be incorporated into an updated OS X due to be released later this year.

Apple indicated on Wednesday that it intended to maintain a healthy distance from Windows in spite of the move.

“Apple has no desire or plan to sell or support Windows, but many customers have expressed their interest to run Windows on Apple’s superior hardware now that we use Intel processors,” said Philip Schiller, vice president of marketing at Apple.

In New York, Apple’s shares ended the day nearly 10 per cent higher at $67.21.

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