Keynote winners and losers: Apple changes its spots

Some momentous news came out of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference today, when Steve Jobs took the stage to address a long-standing rumor that’s been on the mind of many a Mac user as of late. With one announcement, Jobs shook the Mac universe to its foundations, outlining a vision that will shape Mac software development for years to come.

Yes, the next major update to Mac OS X will be code-named “Leopard.”

Oh, and I hear that there was some other news about processors or something.

We’ll set aside talk of Apple’s cat code-name fixation for now—I had “ocelot” in the office pool, so you can imagine how disappointed I am today—and instead, focus our attention on the slightly more significant news that Macs running on Intel-built processors will begin hitting the market by this time next year. After all, this is an announcement that affects every segment of the Mac market, from users to developers to the kids delivering sandwiches to Apple’s engineering team. It’s only natural for every one of these interested parties to have questions about this switch-over: Which Macs will be the first to get Intel chips? What are those chips going to mean for overall performance? And perhaps the most common question to appear in thought bubbles over the heads of WWDC attendees Monday: How is this going to affect me personally ?

Jobs’ relatively brief stem-winder—62 minutes by my watch, which, by the standards of Jobs speeches, is an answering-machine message—didn’t offer up a lot of answers to those questions, except in the broadest possible strokes. Here’s what we know, based on the keynote:

  • The first Macs with Intel processors will be available a year from now.
  • Xcode 2.1—the latest version of Apple’s developer tool—has features that let software makers build apps that run on either PowerPC or Pentium processors.
  • This entire transition should be just about wrapped up two years from now.

And here’s what we don’t know: just about everything else . If you’re the sort of person who hungers for tech specs, Apple didn’t have much to show you Monday, other than the Power Mac powered by a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 chip that it’s making available to Mac developers for $999 so that they can create programs for the brave new world of Pentium-based Macs. (The developers have to give these machines back to Apple in 2006, so you can nix those plans to pick one up on Ebay.)

Then again, describing every last detail of this PowerPC-to-Pentium transition wasn’t the point of Monday’s keynote. Instead, this was Jobs’ opportunity to give the rationale behind the move—“Though we have great products right now, we can envision great products we want to build for you, and we can’t see how we can build them with the PowerPC roadmap,” the Apple CEO said—and erase any fears that we’re in for another elaborate Broadway production number on the order of the OS 9-to-OS X migration.

Which is why the big winners out of Monday’s keynote may well have been the folks who heard the initial rumors about a possible switch to Intel and had visions of a transition fraught with hiccups, headaches, and a pile of obsolete software. While we won’t know for sure until the first Pentium-based Mac rolls off the assembly line, Steve Jobs promises a relatively smooth migration. And all signs seem to indicate that he isn’t pulling our collective leg.

While software makers who do their development work in Metrowerks apparently have their work cut out for them, developers using Apple’s Xcode don’t seem to face a daunting task when it comes to getting their apps up and running on an Intel chip. In an eye-opening presentation, Wolfram Research co-founder Theo Gray said that Mathematica—a complex program described by Gray as “probably the world’s largest collection of algorithms,”—required about two hours and changes to 20 lines of source code to get it running on a Pentium-powered Mac.

End-users like you and me should face an even more seamless transition. Jobs showed off Rosetta, a technology aimed at applications that don’t immediately add support for Intel chips. Rosetta translates PowerPC-based apps so that they can run on Intel machines in a way that’s transparent to the end user (although Jobs’ statement that Rosetta-transformed apps will run “fast enough” has me wondering whether the performance hit will be noticeable). It promises to be a dramatic improvement from a few years back when we had to boot up Classic every time we wanted to run a non OS X-compatible program.

As for the other winners and losers from the WWDC keynote…

Winner: Preparation As it turns out, every version of OS X ever developed has included a build designed specifically to run on Intel-based machines. That’s five years’ worth of surreptitious OS X-on-Intel versions built just in case Apple ever got it into its head to change processor suppliers.

I wish had that kind of foresight and planning skills when it came to switching cell phone providers.

Loser: Existing Mac Sales Apple can stress how it’s still planning to release PowerPC-based Macs in the year before the Intel machines are ready—Jobs said it twice by my count on Monday. And it can emphasize that the software you buy is going to run on a Mac, regardless of the processor inside. But I just can’t see how Monday’s news doesn’t mean that a healthy chunk of Apple’s customers just tabled their hardware-buying plans for another 12 to 18 months.

It’s not necessarily rational, when you think about it—Apple’s been promising a 3GHz Power Mac since 2003, and that shouldn’t have deterred anyone who needed a new desktop from upgrading to a 2.0GHz-plus model. And while it’s true that Macs with Intel inside will start appearing next year, that doesn’t mean every type of Mac will appear at once. What if you’re in the market for a new laptop, and Apple doesn’t get around to putting Intel chips into its PowerBook and iBook lines until last? You’re going to wait until the end of 2007 to replace that aging Titanium PowerBook?

Still, people are going to do what they do. And if Apple wants to maintain healthy sales, it’s going to have to convince Mac users that it’s in their best interest to upgrade.

Winner: Analysts Who’ve Been Predicting This Sort of Thing for the Last Decade The stopped clock got the time right. The sight-impaired squirrel has found his acorn. And the analysts who’ve been flooding the phone lines with this request finally got their wish. Now, perhaps they can find a new demand to beat into the ground. By the way, gents, “Release low-cost Macs!” has already been taken.

Loser: The Megahertz Myth For nearly as long as I’ve been in the employ of Macworld , Apple has been touting the Megahertz Myth—the concept that raw processor speed isn’t the sole determiner for how a system performs. Much of this was based in fact—as we’ve indicated in several feature articles, a lot of variables affect how quickly a computer goes about tasks—but some of it was marketing spin concocted as Pentium clock speeds raced far beyond what PowerPC chips could offer.

Apple’s point of view is that while PowerPC chips were the best processors for the company’s hardware up until now , Intel’s offerings are better for what it wants to do in the future. And I’m not going to disagree with that. But you can’t expect to spend years tut-tutting a rival processor—going so far as to strap a Pentium II on the back of a snail in one of your ad campaigns—only to turn around and declare that same processor is now the best choice for your products without having people wonder whether you’ve been snowing them all this time. Apple could probably stand to give a more elaborate explanation of how the hardware landscape has changed.

Winner: Intel “I bet there’s a whole bunch of you who never thought you’d see [the Intel] logo on [an Apple] stage,” Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini told WWDC attendees. And I bet Otellini never thought he’d walk off the stage at an Apple event to enthusiastic cheers and applause, as opposed to one step ahead of a pitchfork-wielding mob.

Otellini deserved the applause he got Monday. He came across as articulate, enthusiastic, and ready to do everything he could to make this partnership work. Plus, he was able to show off a picture of a then-mustachioed Steve Jobs having dinner with Intel co-founder Andy Grove in the 1970s without the Apple CEO storming onto the stage screaming, “The deal’s off, Otellini!” So he has that going for him.

Loser: IBM A word of advice to any would-be Apple partners out there: when Steve Jobs publicly promises a new product—a 3GHz Power Mac G5, let’s say—and he is relying on your company to help him deliver that product, it is best not to let him down if you want any repeat business.

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