Miscellaneous Ramblings

Intel Inside the Mac: Will the Gain Be Worth the Pain?

Charles Moore - 2005.06.07 - Tip Jar

I've been trying to digest Steve Jobs' WWDC bombshell announcement that Apple will be making a shift from PowerPC to Intel processors - and to draw a bead on how I feel about it.

I wasn't completely surprised by the announcement. The Wall Street Journal is not a rumor site, and it reported several weeks ago that Apple was having talks with Intel. When CNET broke a news story on Saturday explicitly predicting Jobs' Monday keynote revelation, I figured that there was too much smoke for there not to be some serious fire generating it.

Forward into the Past

It is now manifest that shifting the Macintosh platform to Intel was probably in the back of Steve Jobs' mind from the time of his comeback to Apple in 1997. After all, NeXTstep, Jobs' Unix-based operating system from whence OS X sprang, had already been engineered to run on Intel machines.

Indeed, Jobs revealed on Monday that Apple has been quietly developing "shadow" builds of each OS version to support Intel chips. "Mac OS X has been leading a secret double life the past five years," quoth Jobs.

While the full ramifications of this watershed development will take weeks and months to filter out, I think I'm generally okay with it. If Intel's hardware is the best tool for the job - and there are a number of pragmatic reasons why it is - then go for it. Whatever it takes to make the Mac a stronger player in the marketplace and a better computer for users is fine by me.

For the past several years, the PowerPC has been lagging seriously behind Intel in clock speed, and that couldn't be allowed to continue. Jobs said that Mac sales have been growing lately by 40% year-over-year, presumably attributable in large part to the much-hyped "iPod halo" effect attracting new members to the Mac community, but the megahertz deficit would inevitably slow that promising momentum if it couldn't be overcome, one way or another.

Jobs has, wisely we hope, chosen another.

Who knows? If IBM had been able to deliver on Steve Jobs' promise of 3 GHz G5s within a year of the initial G5 introduction and/or it had been able to engineer a low power G5 chip that would work tolerably well in a PowerBook, Jobs might have stayed the PowerPC course. However, IBM's inability to do either, at least in a timely fashion, made switching to "Plan B" more and more inevitable.

There are still many questions that remain to be answered. At this extreme early point, it seems that a new emulation environment called "Rosetta", incorporating "dynamic binary translation", Intel Insidewill allow users to continue running their legacy Mac programs on the new "Intel inside" Macs, much as Mac veterans were able to continue using 68k apps on PowerPC machines (and some of us are still doing so even under OS X Tiger, thanks to Classic Mode) with the fast and transparent-to-the-user 680x0 emulation available on PowerPC Macs.

Speaking of which, I expect that the Intel transition will be the final nail in OS 9's coffin, as its highly doubtful that Apple would allocate expensive and time-consuming development resources to making Classic work on Intel.

On the other hand, some OS X technology, such as Java-based Dashboard, can be moved to Intel with little or no rewriting required, and a new version of Apple's Xcode developer's tools will allow developers to build "universal binaries", ( analogous to the so-called "fat" binary applications for the Mac OS in the mid-90s that had both 680x0 and PowerPC code) that can run on both PowerPC and Intel processors, with both Carbon and Cocoa apps updatable with minor modifications and a recompile.

OS X Still Mac Only

No, this does not mean you'll be able to run the Mac OS on a cheap Windows PC box. Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller was quoted yesterday: "We will not allow running Mac OS X on anything other than an Apple Mac." However, you may be able to run Windows on your entire Mac if you really want to.

Schiller noted that while Apple has no plans to sell or support Windows on Intel-based Macs, "That doesn't preclude someone from running it on a Mac. They probably will. We won't do anything to preclude that."

However, the next year or two promises to be a bit of an awkward transition period. I imagine that some folks will scramble to pick up the last "real" PowerPC Macs, but a substantial number will question whether they want to make a major investment in what is about to become orphaned technology, however emphatic Apple's assurances are that PowerPC machines will continue to be supported for the foreseeable future.

I don't doubt that OS X 10.5 Leopard will run on PowerPC Mac, at least with a basic set of features supported, but beyond that all bets are off. It will be Interesting to watch how this plays out in the marketplace.

From a historical perspective, everyone knew back in 2003 that PowerPC was going to replace 68k, yet Mac sales did not collapse - but that was a less radical revolution that Macs moving to Intel, and the shock was softened somewhat by the promise of PowerPC upgradability for some Mac models.

That will not apply this time.

I expect that Mr. Jobs has weighed the pros and cons and determined that some short to medium term pain will be justified by a long term gain.

Personally, my system upgrade roadmap has been thrown for a loop, and I will have to decide whether it makes more sense to make a move now or try to hold out with my present (considerably short of cutting-edge) equipment for another year or more until the new Intel-based hardware becomes available.

However, my suspicion is that once the new "Intel inside" Macs hit the streets in 2006, PowerPC Macs will quickly feel as much like yesterday's news as 68k ones did back in 95/96. It all depends on how you define and perceive low-end computing.

In any case, we are now living in interesting times.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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