Intel-Apple: A First Reaction

So the rumors (and early press reports) are true.

After 11 years, Apple will begin the process of ditching the PowerPC architecture and will instead build Macs based on processors based by Intel. This is a complicated topic that will probably occupy all of us for the next week, and to some extent the next year, while we sort out all the details.

The most important thing is probably to begin disentangling the emotion of the situation from the cold, hard technical facts. Over the past years, Intel has been painted as the enemy of the Macintosh. A lot of work has been invested — including by Apple, as Intel CEO Paul Otellini said onstage today — into disparaging Intel’s marketing efforts and promoting the PowerPC chip architecture.

For a long time Intel has been one half of the Mac community’s own axis of evil, WinTel, the Windows-Intel alliance that stood for everything that was wrong with PCs and right with Macs. I know that when I went to Intel in 1993 for a job interview — thank goodness I took that job at MacUser instead, huh? — I felt a little bit like a sleeper agent. Hidden in my backpack was a PowerBook 160. I joked with one of my grad school professors at the time that I was waiting for the Intel sensors to detect a Motorola processor and shoot the Giant Intel Anti-Macintosh Laser Beam at me at any time.

So how creepy is it to see Intel and Apple working together? A little bit, but not quite as creepy as it would have been a few years ago. Times have changed, both in the Mac world and on the PC side. Intel is no longer a monolith when it comes to making PCs — AMD is hard on their heels. Windows has taken its lumps on numerous fronts, with serious security problems coupled with an inability to ship Longhorn, Microsoft’s next-generation Windows OS. Meanwhile, Apple kissed and made up with former foe IBM, adopted a new operating system based on Unix, and even started releasing hardware and software that works with Windows.

Now, let’s step away from the emotion. Apple has chosen a new chip vendor. Why did it do it? Steve Jobs himself pointed to two key facts that anyone following the Mac for the past two year will already know by heart: Two years ago, Jobs promised a 3-GHz Power Mac G5, and it still doesn’t exist; and there are still no G5-based PowerBooks anywhere to be seen.

In describing the change to Intel, Jobs explained that as far as Apple is concerned, Intel’s product roadmap — the chips they’re going to be developing over the next few years — is one that’s much more favorable than the roadmap they saw with the PowerPC chip. Is that a compliment to Intel’s chip-designing prowess, or a shot at IBM’s lack of ability to improve the G5 and make it more appropriate for laptop use? Yes to both, I’d say.

When you get away from the emotion of this situation, I think this transition isn’t going to be nearly as tumultuous as the one from 680x0-family processors to the PowerPC, or from OS 9 to OS X. Via “Rosetta,” PowerPC-compiled Mac apps will still run on Intel-based systems. And creating Intel-native versions of Mac apps will be much easier than either making 680x0 apps PowerPC native or making OS 9 apps run in OS X. The very structure of OS X — which itself was designed, way back when it was NextStep/OpenStep, to compile for multiple processor architectures — tends to keep developers writing their code at a very high level, so that recompiling their programs to run on Intel should be relatively straightforward.

In my mind, the biggest negative about this entire transition isn’t the technical or even the political. It’s the fallout that’s going to come from confusion and misinformation about this change, especially in the next few days. Stay tuned to Macworld.com for a lot more, and by all means spread the word to your friends: this doesn’t mean that Apple’s becoming a PC cloner. It doesn’t mean that Macs will all run Windows instead of OS X. It doesn’t mean that current Macs will be obsolete next year.

The sky is not falling.

But, I’ll admit, it seems to be a slightly different shade than it was yesterday.

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