Considering Intel

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So in case you were sleeping today, Apple announced that, over the next two years, it will swap the chips inside the Mac. Today, all Macs run a PowerPC chip from either Motorola or IBM. By the end of 2007, all new Macs will be running with an Intel chip inside. Call it Mintelac—my personal preference—or whatever you like.

Now, I’m not the right guy to comment on all the technical aspects of the differences between the two chips, but suffice it to say, they’re substantial. Today, a Mac application will not run on an Intel chip. Apple has announced a new technology, called Rosetta, that will let some (but not all) existing programs run without changes on the Intel chips. So the process of switching chips is not a simple one. But that’s not what I want to focus on today.

Instead, I’d like to talk about my feelings on the switch, and ask how all of you feel about it. At first, I was torn. One of the things about the Mac has that it’s always been a bit different. Part of that difference was the architecture of the CPU, but a much bigger part was (obviously) the OS itself. So the initial announcement, though it didn’t catch me by surprise thanks to all the unofficial news leaks, was still quite shocking to hear.

But once I got past the initial shock of the announcement, I’ve come to realize that this is a very good move for the platform, with one big caveat (which I’ll get to in a bit), and one big question. When I thought back on my years of Mac usage, I realized that the CPU was basically irrelevant to my experience. It didn’t matter if it was a 68K Motorola, a PowerPC G4, or a PowerPC G5. What appeals to me about the Mac is, quite simply, the operating system and its associated user interface and applications. They all just plain work. So if Apple can manage this transition to Intel, and not lose the “essence” of the Mac, I think I’ll be fine with it.

But the caveat is: this only works if the developers play along. We need apps, and we need those apps to be native on Intel, not running in some emulation environment. Although Steve’s demo of Rosetta was impressive, there are many apps that won’t be able to use it—according to this 1.5MB PDF of universal binary developer documentation, it won’t support code that uses unique G4 or G5 features, nor that which uses Altivec. So it will be interesting to see how well the transition works—I can’t imagine using my Mac without some of the current set of apps I run, so Apple really needs to get the developers on board with this. It’s nice Apple is giving them a one-year head start, and that the development kit seems to be reasonably priced ($999 plus a $500 Select-level ADC membership gets you a 3.6GHz Pentium P4 Mac running OS X for Intel 10.4.1). So only time will tell how well that works, but it looks like Apple is trying really hard to make it easy for developers. Seeing that something as complex as Mathematica could be ported with 20 tweaked lines of code was quite impressive.

And the one big question is: Who is going to buy any Apple hardware between now and next June? Unless I’m missing something, I foresee a huge decrease in sales coming between now and then. Sure, Apple will sell some high-end machines and laptops, but really, why buy now when the technology is a known dead end? Personally, I now know for sure that my 12-inch PowerBook and original dual-2GHz G5 will be with me through at least next June. I was contemplating an upgrade for the PowerBook later in the year, but now, I’m going to wait and see what the future holds. So for the next nine months, Apple sells what, iPods only? Is that enough to sustain the company? Or am I overlooking some large group that will continue to purchase hardware?

There are a couple other exciting things to consider with this announcement. The first is that the Mac platform should now have access to the latest technology from the Wintel world. Consider a current top-of-the-line Alienware gaming machine, the Area 51-5500. This box has a PCI Express video card with a 512MB VRAM (and two PCI Express slots total), a dual-core 800MHz front-side bus Intel Extreme Edition 3.2GHz processor with 2MB of Level 2 cache, dual-channel DDR2 RAM running at 667MHz, and Serial ATA 2 (which is twice as fast as the SATA in the G5s) hard drives. This is some impressive stuff, and with an Intel CPU on the board, there’s no reason to think we won’t be able to see similar things in the Mac in the near future.

The other thing that interests me is looking forward, past the end of 2007. Now we have an all-Intel Mac lineup, which presents the opportunity to directly compete with Windows. How? Consider a couple of options.

Option No. 1, which would be the least disruptive for Apple, would be to offer a true Windows layer, instead of just Virtual PC. I’m not a technical person, but since the CPU is now pure Intel, it should be possible to have a nearly-native-speed translator to run Windows apps natively on your Mac. This is how WINE works, which does just that for Linux on Intel chips. They describe it like this:

Think of Wine as a compatibility layer for running Windows programs. Wine does not require Microsoft Windows, as it is a completely free alternative implementation of the Windows API consisting of 100 percent non-Microsoft code, however Wine can optionally use native Windows DLLs if they are available.

Apple should be able to do the exact same thing. Talk about a strong argument for an easy transition from the Windows world!

The other thing Apple could do is enter into a controlled cloning arrangement. Talk to Sony, for instance, or maybe even Dell (who has shown some Windows animosity at times), and let them sell an OS X-installed version of their machinery, complete with the WINE-like emulation layer. This is a much bigger step, for it’s one that clearly puts Apple on the track of becoming a software-only company. But after all, isn’t that how Microsoft got to where they are today?

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