The Future of PowerPC Macs and Software as ‘Snow Leopard’ Approaches

The future of PowerPC Macs has been in question since Apple moved to Intel processors in 2006. Prior to switching to Intel chips, Apple had used PowerPC processors since 1994, starting with the Power Mac 6100, 7100, and 8100. Prior to that, Macs used Motorola 680×0 chips.

The “G series” of Macs started in 1997 with the “Gossamer” Power Mac G3 and “Kanga” PowerBook G3. Some of the best selling Macs of all time used G3 and newer PowerPC CPUs, including the iMac G3, the PowerBook G4, and the iMac G5.

The Intel Transition

When Apple first announced it was moving to Intel chips, the Mac world was turned upside down. Was this the end of the PowerPC? Would this be as big a change as the move from Mac OS 9 to OS X? Would older software work on the new chips? If so, how well?

It wasn’t as big a deal as most thought. Apple had been preparing for this for a long time – all previous versions of OS X had secretly been compiled for both PowerPC and Intel chips. Apple had been anticipating this possibility since it acquired NeXT in 1997 and began to turn NeXTstep, which already ran on Intel chips, into the next Mac operating system.

I purchased one of the first Intel Macs, an Intel Core Duo 1.83 GHz 17″ iMac, and the experience was nothing to worry about. Software developers have been creating “Universal Binary” versions and updates for their software to ensure that the older “G range” of Macs were updated – and also the Intel machines and their different coding were taken advantage of.

How long this will go on is a concern.

Older software that isn’t Universal Binary works on the Intel chips using Rosetta, a program that dynamically translates PowerPC code to Intel’s x86 instruction set. This means PowerPC programs may run a little slower, but not so that you would notice it most of the time.

How Long for PowerPC Support?

How long will Apple and other developers support the PowerPC platform?

It’s obvious now that Intel was the way forward, but with even 9-year-old G4 Macs capable of running the latest version of OS X (albeit without official support), Apple didn’t want to cut off existing users. In the same vein, they didn’t want to hinder future development for the sake of those very old computers, which is understandable.

The reason for moving to Intel chips was because the PowerPC chips had reached their limit. The G5 topped out at 2.5 GHz when Apple made its decision to switch, and there was no G5 portable due to heat problems. When Mac OS X was introduced, Mac OS 9 was supported under Classic Mode through OS X 10.4, but it is not supported on Intel Macs. Mac OS 9 software is not supported by current Macs or by Mac OS X 10.5 (not even on PowerPC Macs).

How long before PowerPC only apps are phased out?

Until now, almost everything works on both platforms. The latest release of Adobe Premier Pro (the first in three years) is Intel only. Is this the shape of things to come? Is this a first in the big plan to phase out PowerPC support, or is it merely because Premier Pro requires such a high spec machine?

No Classic in 10.5, No PowerPC in 10.6

With the release of Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard” in October 2007, Apple eliminated Classic Mode, the G3 processor was no longer supported, nor were G4s under 867 MHz.

In June 2006, Microsoft dropped support for any version of Windows prior to Windows 2000, which was seven years old at the time. Apple is well within its rights to limit support for older hardware, although it was still building PowerPC Macs two years ago.

With Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard”, announced for delivery in early 2009, Apple is planning to drop PowerPC support altogether, leaving 10.5 “Leopard” as the last version for PowerPC Macs. How long after that will developers keep producing Universal Binary programs to support PowerPC Macs?


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