Technology

On Apple and Intel

Now that I’ve had a couple of days to digest the information, I thought I’d post a few thoughts about the PowerPC to x86 transition Steve Jobs announced at this year’s World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC).

Weekend Jitters

The weekend before WWDC, rumors were spreading around the Internet that Apple was in talks with Intel, and these talks were going to lead to an announcement that Apple would be abandoning the PowerPC architecture for the x86 architecture. Sure, these rumors had been around for years, but this time it was different. Publications with more clout and reputation at stake were reporting these rumors as solid fact.

The Macintosh community was abuzz with discussions. Forum topics would surpass a thousand posts in under an hour, and the debate kept returning to the same basic theme: Could this be for real?

I have to admit to being a nay-sayer. I thought Apple was going to use Intel’s ARM processor in future mobile devices. I even agreed with Daring Fireball’s article that speculated (far-fetched as it may sound) that Intel had wooed Apple with its own variant of the PowerPC architecture. Perhaps they could provide the speed in the PowerPC that IBM had so far failed to deliver. The thought that Apple would take an undertaking this large seemed unrealistic, especially after the rocky OS 9 to OS X shift.

The Announcement

Incidentally, I had been preparing some thoughts about how Apple had grown content with its current position in the market and how it seemed  to be a company that was finished, for the time being, with going out on limbs. I knew just how wrong that line of thinking was when the headline came up on MacCentral reading: “The Rumors Are True.”

What was most surprising wasn’t the shift itself, though. What was surprising was how Steve Jobs made it seem like this was not a big deal, and developers would be able to easily take this shift in stride. More so, he even had demonstrable evidence that this was the case. Rosetta will be able to run PowerPC compiled apps on the x86 processors (with some caveats we’ll explore later). Mathmatica was recompiled for x86 in about two hours, and the new version of XCode can dual-compile applications, so a developer can ship software that can run on both architectures on the same disc. “Impressive. Most impressive.”

The comprehensiveness by which this transition is being handled should not, in retrospect, have been so surprising. After all, Apple is a company that thinks and plans before it acts. Additionally, Apple had already weathered a substantial platform transition in recent history from which they could learn. As it turns out, Mac OS X has been running on x86 machines practically from Day 1. In fact, its BSD core makes it inherently portable. Some saw this day coming. Fortunately, Apple had planned well for it.

The Timing

One of the arguments against this dramatic change happening now was the fact that the OS 9 to OS X migration was really only just settling down, even though it has been five years since the introduction of OS X. Why would Apple force its users and developers through another tectonic shift in such a short amount of time? Furthermore, such a shift would require time, and PowerPC Macintosh sales will surely take a hit with the promise of an entirely new architecture.

Right now, Apple is a strong company, both in public perception and financially. Possibly, Apple’s executives see this as a good time to undertake this task for precisely that reason. PowerPC was putting Apple’s lineup (especially the expensive stuff) in a precarious position, and the performance gap between high end Macs and PCs had ceased to narrow. In time, it may have even begun to widen again.

As a side note: Remember the days of the G4 towers? Back when they were introduced, everybody still measured processor speeds by megahertz. As Intel moved past the 1 GHz barrier, Motorola was still providing Apple with G4 chips running at about 600 MHz. Until the introduction of the G5, Apple’s high end lineup was looking very weak. It looks like this time, Apple is trying to avoid history repeating itself.

Yes, Macintosh sales will drop off for a couple of quarters. Hopefully, iPod sales will help offset that. We may even see some price-cutting on PowerPC-based Macintoshes in order to get them out of the warehouses. Fortunately, Apple will be taking these lumps from a position of strength. Had they waited another couple of years, the outlook may have been more grim.

Fear and Paranoia

Of course, there are some who proclaim this as the Death of Apple. (In fact, I wonder how The Mac Observer’s Apple Death Knell Counter is doing right now.) The biggest fear is, of course, that people will widely adopt Window’s emulators for their Macs and the need for Macintosh software and game development will come to a screeching halt. This reasoning is a load of dingo’s kidneys. Emulators are a pain. They also rob you of the Macintosh user experience, and some can even leave you vulnerable to viruses and malware.

Take X11 for example. Every Macintosh user has X11 available to them to provide a graphical interface for UNIX based apps (which are all free, I might add). Now raise your hand if you know what X11 is. Keep it up if you have installed X11 onto your Mac. Okay, now keep your hand up if you regularly use X11. Alright, I see about three hands, and mine is not one of them. I messed with X11 some and decided it was too much of a pain. Thanks for the option, but I’ll stick with my native Mac OS X apps.

Mac OS X is a fully independent platform. Most users will not want to bother with emulators or virtual machines, and those hardcore geeks or gamers who do will be a vanishingly small percentage. Mac developers will still be needed, and the market is not going to vanish simply because of an architecture change.

The Trade Offs

There are definite gains in switching to the x86 architecture. Mac users will probably see more rapid adoption of PC-first technology alongside Apple’s innovations. Macintosh ports will probably take less time in the long run. Speed will be a definite gain, and we will hopefully see more and better updates to Apple’s laptop line (which used to be the strongest aspect of their product matrix). It’s very likely that there are even more advantages I haven’t even thought of yet.

However, there are some trade-offs. The mystique and elegance of the PowerPC architecture will be a thing of the past to Macintosh users. Sure, Macs will finally have performance parity, but there will no longer be that hope of one day PowerPC Macs will speed past WinTel systems. From a subjective standpoint, the switch to x86 makes Macs a little less special now. (See this article for more.) I just hope those “Intel Inside” stickers don’t get plastered all over the hardware!

(Is this a good point to mention the whole frontside bus issue? Sure, we’ll be seeing 3.2 GHz Macs soon, but their FSB will drop to 800 MHz. In fact, I could not find a single Intel processor with a FSB that surpassed 1 GHz like the G5s do. I wonder how that will affect things. It’s weird to think that my 1.8 GHz G5 has a faster bus than a 3+ GHz Pentium 4.)

Additionally, software will be spotty for a while – even with Rosetta. Apps that require a G4/G5 processor do not seem to work. AltiVec instructions will be lost, and Classic apps will not work. Actually, the whole Classic thing doesn’t bother me in the least, but it might affect someone. Hopefully, companies will release patches for existing products (if that is possible). However, I bet that if I want an x86 native version of Sibelius for the Macintosh, I’m going to have to save my pennies for a new version. Just like the migration from OS 9 to OS X, there are going to have to be some major software purchases.

Conclusion

I was dismayed at first to read the news that Apple would be switching to the x86 architecture, but now I am cautiously optimistic. The road will be a bumpy one, but at the end of it, I will still be a Mac user. After all, it’s really the operating system and the software that makes a Mac what it is. Furthermore, I’m sure Apple will retain its great industrial design (and PowerMacs will hopefully get to shrink some now). Everything that makes an Apple an Apple will still be in place, and I guess that’s all that really matters.

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