The Intel switch pays off

On a day that Apple spent looking forward to the future, I thought it might be illustrative to look back at the recent past. Specifically, as Steve Jobs was outlining what to expect from the next version of OS X in this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, I thought back to last year’s edition. Maybe you vaguely remember it—it was an uneventful speech punctuated by a minor little announcement at the end about switching from PowerPC processors to Intel chips.

Yeah. That little thing.

Anyhow, I thought it might be illustrative to look back on the immediate reaction to last year’s announcement, which I believe you could fairly describe as “mixed.” For every comment in the Macworld.com forums that was happy or at least sanguine about the announced Intel transition, you could find an equal number of commenters that were decidedly less enthused about developments. Some of the choice examples include:

This just makes no sense at all. Any benefits can’t come close to justifying the costs.

That sound you’re hearing right now is the sound of Apple’s computer hardware sales drying up for the next year. Stupid move, Apple. Maybe Jobs’ time there has run its course… Does the Intel news make anyone else sick to their stomachs?

Obviously, there was a fair amount of knee-jerk negativity going on, which any amateur psychiatrist can tell you is typical whenever people are faced with change. And I think at the root of that ambivalence toward the Intel transition was a single underlying concern: Just how does this move benefit me?

A little more than a year later, Apple provided the definitive answer to that question with the unveiling of the Mac Pro, the desktop that completes the company’s migration to Intel processors.

The processing specs of the Mac Pro are impressive enough—two dual-core Xeon processors that run at clock speeds ranging from 2GHz to 3GHz for reported performance gains of anywhere from 1.4 to 1.8 times that of a PowerPC G5, depending on what application you’re talking about. But the interesting thing about the Mac Pro and the Xeon chips that power it is the performance-per-watt—Apple’s rationale behind the switch to Intel chips—and what that means for the machine’s design.

Because the Mac Pro runs on chips throwing off less heat, Apple didn’t need to find space for as many cooling systems that appear in the Power Mac G5. That gave the company room to add other features—four hard drive bays, two optical drive bays, more ports on the front of the machine, and double-wide graphics slots on the rear. A lot of that doesn’t happen if Apple sticks with the processors it was using a year ago.

And it’s not just the high-end desktops that are reaping this benefit. The updated Xserves announced by Apple Monday will run on two dual-core Xeon chips from Intel; the PowerPC-based servers they replace featured just single-core chips, again because of heat issues. Besides the performance boost gained by having two dual-core chips, the updated Xserve also runs cooler, leaving more room to add features such as redundant power supply. Presumably, the next round of Mac laptops to run on Intel chips will see similar advances, particularly as they move to the newly available Core 2 Duo chips.

Which is why the big winner from Apple’s presentation to developers Monday was… Apple. Whatever uncertainty was caused by the company’s switch to Intel chips has now been eclipsed by tangible benefits to its product line. That’s good news for Apple—and even better news for the people who use its hardware.

Other keynote winners and losers from Monday include…

Winner: Leopard As far as first impressions go, OS X 10.5 made a strong one. The 10 features Apple chose to preview look like solid additions or enhancements—no head-scratchers among this particular bunch. I’m hoping Apple follows up with even more details on the next major version of OS X before its scheduled spring 2007 launch, as this initial look left me wanting more depth, not only on the features Apple previewed but the ones it’s keeping under wraps for now. At least that’s the desired reaction you want coming out of these things—it certainly beats the alternative.

Loser: Third-party developers A couple months back, I saw a demo of an instant messaging utility from Script Software called ChatFX; it adds a number of visual effects to iChat, including but not limited to bluescreen, xray, sepia, and assorted distortions. It’s really a clever application that's gotten its share of positive reviews.

And it’s likely to become irrelevant once Leopard ships, since the next version of iChat will apparently add a lot of the same capabilities. (In fact, the OS X 10.5 version of iChat will be picking up a lot of features currently found in third-party applications, such as the ability to add slideshows and movies to video chats. My colleague, Mac Gems guru Dan Frakes, counted three or four third-party apps that are about to have iChat muscle in on their territory.

For its part, Script Software seems untroubled by this turn of events, posting on its blog:

Is it another case of Watson/Sherlock or Konfabulator/Dashboard or Windows/Mac? Naw, we don’t think so. These aren’t the days of Doug Engelbart inventing the mouse and desktop metaphors totally on his own. We are all connected by the net, articles, journals, sample code, and chat. Lots of brilliant minds all exchanging concepts. Like the independent creation of similar songs at the same time it is often hard to say where an idea originated. We are all connected, we stand on each others shoulders. In our case we had a leg up in creating what we did through the use of numerous Apple technologies that we put together in a creative way. ChatFX relies on Quartz Composer which is brilliant and created by Pierre-Olivier Latour, Apple gives it out free to developers. Also iChat was necessary and is free from Apple and part of the OS. We may have inspired Apple but Apple definitely inspired us.

Besides, the very nature of being a third-party developer involves the risk that one day, someone will decide the niche you’ve carved out for yourself would be much better served if it were built directly into the operating system. It’s unfortunate, but it’s life. Truly creative software makers usually find a new area that requires their talents, and Script Software, which boasts a wide array of useful products would seem to have little trouble following suit.

That said, it will be interesting to hear from makers of backup software about what they think of Apple adding backup capabilities into OS X 10.5 via the new Time Machine feature, don’t you think?

Winner: Bertrand Serlet Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering stole the show with a hilarious segment on the eerie similarities between OS X 10.4 and Microsoft’s perpetually delayed Vista. Harkening back to the “Redmond, Start Your Photocopiers” banners that adorned the 2004 WWDC that saw Tiger’s introduction, Serlet quipped, “It was a joke, but [Microsoft] took it seriously.” It’s worth watching the QuickTime video of Monday’s keynote just to see Serlet’s segment.

Loser: Microsoft Between Serlet’s jabs and the opening of the keynote featuring a film of John “I’m a PC” Hodgman begging Mac developers to take a year off and help finish Windows Vista (“We could use the help.”), it was not exactly a morning devoted to building up the software giant’s self-esteem.

Winner: Stealth OS X overhauls Quick—name all the major versions of OS X. Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, and Tiger, right?

Wrong, says Steve Jobs. You’re forgetting about the sixth major OS X release, the one that allowed the operating system to run on Intel-based Macs. You can see his point, since that required Apple to tweak 86 million lines of source code. “[Apple’s software team] made it look really easy, and it works seamlessly,” Jobs said.

Loser: Stealth monitor price cuts You would think a $500 price cut to Apple’s 30-inch Cinema HD Display, a $300 cut to the price of the 23-inch model, and a $100 drop in the price of the 20-inch Cinema Display might have merited some sort of editorial comment from Steve Jobs during the keynote. Instead, news of the reduced Cinema Display prices was relegated to PressRelease-Land.

Winner: Me Weeks ago, I petulantly dismissed the rumor that a movie rental service would be unveiled at WWDC, and it turns out, my reasoning was sound. If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I have to point tauntingly in the direction of my colleague, Jim Dalrymple, who questioned my air-tight logic.

There. That felt good.

If that sort of public display strikes you as unseemly, consider that I so rarely get the chance to revel in being right. After all…

Loser: Me again For getting nearly every other prediction wrong except for the spectacularly obvious ones.

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