Apple Selling Intel-Based Macs? Don’t Count on It

Update: Just hours before Apple announced it would switch Macs to Intel x86 CPUs, we argued that it would make no sense for Apple to do so. Thanks to dual-core technology and a great PowerPC emulator, Apple was able to make the transition far more smoothly than we would have believed. Would you expect less from Apple?


Intel inside MacsFor the past week, the Mac Web and some of the mainstream press has been abuzz with rumors of Apple selling Intel-based Mac OS X computers. At Low End Mac, we think the idea is ludicrous.

It’s not that Apple can’t port OS X to other hardware. Apple has been porting the Mac OS to Intel hardware since the unreleased Star Trek project back in the System 7 era. There’s no technical reason it can’t be done.

It’s not that I think Intel processors are inferior to the PowerPC processors produced by IBM and Freescale. Intel didn’t become number one by marketing second-rate chips. I suspect that OS X on a Pentium 4 would perform very nicely in comparison to a Power Mac G5 system.

And it’s not that Apple couldn’t create an Intel-based computer running OS X. There is no technical reason not to do so – but there are some very good marketing reasons that argue against Apple producing a Pentium-based Macintosh.

First and foremost, it would confuse the market. Today you can buy Mac software – even apps written for the 68030 and System 7 – and run them on Apple hardware. Unless Apple has a phenomenal PowerPC emulator, running existing Mac titles on an Intel CPU is probably going to be slow. Very slow. Painfully slow.

That would be a deterrent for current Mac users to make the switch. Their old software would come to a crawl in emulation, just as Windows software crawls on Virtual PC.

Just imagine the frustration of someone buying a MacIntel and not being able to find any native software for it. Programs, other than Apple’s own titles, would only be available in PowerPC versions until Microsoft, Adobe, and others port them over to the new CPU.

Apple has a long, strong track record with the PowerPC, and I just can’t see changing horses midstream. By the end of the year, IBM should be able to provide 3.2 GHz and faster G5 processors, and Freescale has been developing faster G4s for the low-end of the Apple line.

OS X for Intel

There are other routes Apple and Intel could take. One possibility is that Intel has signed on to produce PowerPC chips, giving Apple an additional source. Apple needs that, because IBM just can’t make G5s fast enough for Apple to move more of its line to the new CPU. If Intel could produce G4 and/or G5 processors at 1.5 GHz to 3.5 GHz, Apple might be able to release that PowerBook G5. You know, the portable called “the mother of all thermal challenges” because of the heat the G5 generates.

Possibility two is that Apple will port OS X to Intel processors, license the OS to various PC vendors (perhaps HP and Gateway), and create a new hardware platform the doesn’t run Windows but is Pentium-based. The advantages: no viruses, no spyware, no adware, the elegance of OS X, and the ability to emulate Windows at full speed (and perhaps kill off the market for Virtual PC). The disadvantages: no software yet for the new platform, difficulty of selling a new platform that’s neither Macintosh nor Windows PC.

In fact, this could become the new standard OS for 64-bit Intel (and probably Athlon) machines. I think there’s a real market there – and Apple could avoid going head-to-head with Microsoft in the 32-bit PC market. (See The Road Ahead: 64-Bit Computing.)

I just don’t see Apple being one of the companies selling Pentium-based hardware. Apple could make a killing selling OS X to existing PC makers, though.

The long shot is Apple porting OS X to existing Intel-based computers. I don’t see that as very likely, since it would mean the same kind of hardware support headaches the Windows world is used to. Which video card? What drive controller? Is that a PS/2 or USB mouse?

In a few hours, Apple should put the rumors to rest….

Update: Nine years later (late 2014), we know how everything worked out. Apple had Rosetta, which let OS X 10.4 Tiger, 10.5 Leopard, and 10.6 Snow Leopard run PowerPC software. And rather than follow Microsoft’s lead and offering separate 32-bit and 64-bit versions of its OS, Apple made the whole 32/64-bit thing transparent to end users. And, of course, Apple designed OS X to only run on its own Intel-based hardware, not third-party gear. Finally, Boot Camp and virtualization let Intel-based Macs run Windows at full speed, making Macs that much more viable in the workplace.

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