Apple and Intel: What you need to know

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Apple’s startling announcement that it will begin a transition away from PowerPC chips to Intel-made processors has left Mac fans’ heads spinning, and not just because a former “enemy” of the Mac is now counted among its allies. Many details about the transition are unclear or flat-out missing — after all, Apple said it won’t be shipping any Intel-based Macs until next year. And let’s be honest — computer chips are not exactly the simplest topic under the sun.

To help you sort out this situation, here’s what you need to know about the Apple-Intel announcement — in the form of frequently-asked questions. (If you’d like to pose more questions, please do so in the forum thread attached to this story. We’ll try to add some questions posed in the forums to this list.)

What, specifically, did Apple announce?

On June 6 in an address to Mac developers, Steve Jobs announced that Apple would begin a transition from the PowerPC chips that currently power Mac systems to chips built by Intel. Jobs said that by June of next year, at least some Intel-based Macs would be on the market, that by June 2007 most new Macs would be Intel-based, and that by the end of 2007 the last-ever PowerPC-based Mac will have rolled off the assembly line.

2006? So why did Apple announce this now?

Developers of Mac software — the very people Jobs was addressing — will need time to ensure that their programs will work on Intel-based Macs. Now that developers have those tools the chances are good that numerous Intel-ready programs will be ready before Intel-based Macs actually arrive.

Why did Apple do this?

Jobs said the company made this decision because they “want to be making the best computer for our customers, looking forward.” He cited his 2003 announcement to ship a 3GHz G5 by mid-2004, a promise that is still unfulfilled. He mentioned that Apple has also failed to deliver a G5-based PowerBook. Clearly, Apple has not been impressed with the pace of processor development by IBM, which builds the G5 chip. And as Jobs said, Apple believes that when it looks to future processor development for chips destined for Apple systems, Intel would progress much faster than IBM would.

So does this mean Apple has to do a new version of Mac OS X for Intel?

Yes, but it’s not as big a deal as you might think. OS X originated as NextStep/OpenStep, an operating system that originated on Motorola-based chips and later also ran on Intel chips. So OS X has, from the very beginning, been an operating system capable of running on different chips. And as Steve Jobs admitted, Apple’s created an Intel version of every version of Mac OS X, just in case it needed to make the switch someday. That day is here, but the bulk of the work has already been done.

Geez, is this like the OS 9 to OS X transition again?

It’s pretty different. For most developers, modifying their software to run on Intel processors will be quite a bit easier than making that software run natively in OS X. (Although for some developers, who are using CodeWarrior as their development environment, it might be just as hard or even harder.) From a user perspective, though, an Intel-based Mac system will look just like a PowerPC-based system. Mac OS X is remaining the same; it’s just the underlying processor that will be different.

But it is a transition, and there will be quirks and bumps, new stuff to learn, and a lot of uncertainty. So in that way it will remind you of the OS 9 to OS X transition or the move from 680x0 processors to PowerPC chips back in the mid-’90s.

Does this affect the software I already own? What will happen to my software if I buy an Intel-based system?

Rosetta Get Info Box
Apple has announced a new technology, Rosetta, that will run PowerPC Mac programs on Intel-based Macs. However, according to Apple’s own technical documentation, Rosetta does not support Classic apps, nor does it support apps that require the G4 and G5 processors.

Rosetta works by translating code meant to run on a PowerPC chip into code that is compatible with Intel processors. If you recall running 680x0 code (say, Microsoft Word 5.1) on a Power Mac back in the mid-90s, you know what this means: programs run slower when they’re not running on their native processors. Most common programs will probably be quite usable; some processor-intensive applications such as games and 3-D renderers will probably not be. Over the next year, I would imagine that many software developers will update their applications specifically so that they run properly using Rosetta.

(Rosetta does not work the same way Classic does, however. Classic actually runs software within an entirely separate and additional operating system (Mac OS 9) designed for the same PowerPC chip found on your PowerPC-based Mac. Rosetta runs programs that are native to Mac OS X — but translates the PowerPC chip instructions into Intel-compatible ones.)

By the time the first Intel-based Macs appear, many of the programs you use may have already been updated to new versions which also support the Intel architecture. You’ll be able to tell which processor type a program supports by selecting it in the Finder and choosing Get Info. In the More Info selection of the Get Info window, you’ll see an

line that will list Intel, PowerPC, or both. (There’s also an “Open using Rosetta” checkbox that might be useful in certain oddball situations, much as “Open using Classic” is today.)

Will I have to buy new versions of my software specifically to run on an Intel-based Mac?

As with the PowerPC and OS X transitions, there’s no single answer. Different developers will handle things differently. One company might offer an Intel-compatible version as a free upgrade; another might build it into their next major release and charge you for the privilege.

Because of Apple’s new “Universal Binary” approach, developers can deliver a single program that contains within it both Intel and PowerPC versions of their software. You won’t have Intel apps PowerPC apps floating around, making it easy to click on the wrong one (and making it impossible to drag-and-drop software from an Intel Mac to a PowerPC one). And future Mac software will likely be sold simply as Mac software, not specifying whether it’s Mac for Intel or Mac for PowerPC — you’ll install it, double-click on the program, and your computer will use the right code for its processor.

How much work will need to go into modifying Mac software?

It will depend a lot on the program. Programs written entirely using Apple’s Cocoa frameworks will generally come over quickly. Programs originally on OS 9, which largely use the Carbon development system, will require more work. Programs that directly address the processor, or that take advantage of Velocity Engine, will need lots of tweaks.

Still, most developers we’ve spoken with to are fairly positive that moving to Intel won’t be a huge impediment for them — meaning they’ll be able to make Intel-ready versions of their programs fairly rapidly. Owing to its NextStep/OpenStep heritage, Mac OS X has been designed from day one as a cross-platform operating system. That means that programmers have been encouraged to write programs that talk to various frameworks that are built by Apple and are abstracted from specific hardware. That’s a good thing, because when there’s a big change — like, say, moving from PowerPC to Intel — the burden of compatibility falls on the Apple engineers responsible for maintaining those frameworks.

Will Intel-based Macs get nasty viruses and spyware like Intel-based PCs?

Essentially, no. The viruses and spyware you hear about on Windows are just that — attacks on the Windows operating system, which happens to run on Intel (and AMD) processors. If a Mac were to be infested by viruses and spyware, those infestations would happen regardless of what processor was running that particular Mac.

This is not to say that a Mac couldn’t get viruses and spyware. But that’s true today, too. The Mac is free from viruses and spyware because it’s more secure than Windows and because it’s a much less common system than Windows.

The Mac is currently an appealing alternative for PC users because it’s secure, easy to use, and Mac software provides an easy way to interact with digital photos, movies, the Web, and e-mail. Moving to Intel processors doesn’t change any of that.

So does this mean my Mac is obsolete?

Not to get all new-agey on you, but your Mac is as obsolete as you want it to be. Like people, Macs have natural lifespans. When they’re young, they’re pretty frisky, and can run just about any program you can throw at them — even the most cutting-edge, processor-intensive stuff. As they reach middle age, they seem slower. While they’re good at running the same programs they did when they were new, they can no longer seriously play out on the cutting edge. Eventually a Mac becomes old, at which point it can still be a solid contributor for a long time to come, but just as with old dogs, old Macs tend not to learn many new tricks.

Didn’t work for you? Okay, let me be more direct. When you buy a Mac, it starts to become obsolete almost immediately, in a way. Technology advances. Computers get faster. Eventually, there will be a version of Mac OS X that won’t run on your Mac. That was true three years ago and it’s true today. Your Mac today, and any Mac you buy in the next year, will still pass through all the stages of life. The Intel transition will be a very specific milestone along that path. Depending on how the transition shakes out and, more importantly, what you use your Mac for, the Intel transition might make your Mac obsolete more quickly, or might keep it relevant for a little while longer than would be usual. But all computers are born to be obsolete.

Should I not buy any new Macs until the Intel-based Macs arrive?

It depends on what your needs are and what your current Macs are. Over the next year, Apple’s going to be coming out with numerous advancements on existing PowerPC-based Mac models. And keep in mind, according to Apple the PowerPC won’t be completely eradicated from the company’s product line until late 2007. If you’ve got an aging Mac system, do you want to wait until 2007 to get a new one? If you bought a new Mac today, you could be pretty confident that it would serve you well for several years and probably wouldn’t become obsolete any faster than it would normally, given the march of time.

Then again, if you’re comfortable with the Mac systems you’ve got now, and don’t feel the need to buy a Mac for a while, waiting until Apple crosses the next barrier might be a good idea. Or it might not, because…

When the new Intel Macs come out, should I be first in line to buy one?

Do you like living on the edge? When those first Intel-based Macs come out, they may not be without their quirks. But more certainly, if at that point most of the programs you run don’t currently exist in Intel versions, a faster Mac might actually seem slower to you. This is the effect many Mac users noticed when moving from a Quadra to a Power Mac in the early days of that transition: because most of the programs they used were emulated, the “faster” Macs were actually slower in everyday use. Once they upgraded the programs they used most to PowerPC-native varieties, things got better. (It’s important to note, though, that these days many people rely almost exclusively on Apple-produced programs such as Mail, Safari, and iLife. We’d count on Apple being there with all of its software, ready to go for Intel, on day one of this new era.)

How will the Intel machines measure up to the PowerPC Macs in performance?

We simply don’t know yet. As soon as we know, we’ll let you know! Also, keep in mind that since Apple’s not going to ship any Intel-based Macs until 2006, the Intel chips that are available today on PCs are not necessarily the chip models, speeds, or even families that will make their way into Apple’s Intel-based systems. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Does this mean Apple’s abandoning its commitment to a 64-bit architecture?

We don’t have any specifics yet, but it seems highly unlikely to us that Apple would turn its back on 64-bit chips. Intel offers 64-bit chips and it’s almost impossible to conceive that Apple would move backward in this area.

Could this lead to cheaper Macs?

It’s possible, depending on what system parts Apple buys from Intel and what they cost. But keep in mind, Apple’s not making a cheap clone PC. Apple’s going to continue to make Macs, and sales of Mac hardware help fund Apple’s development of Mac OS X. Don’t expect Apple to start selling computers at rock-bottom prices like cheap PC cloners.

Will any PC be able to run Mac OS X for Intel?

Apple says no. Our guess is that some enterprising hacker may be able to get it to work, but we’d expect that if anyone can get OS X to run on PC hardware, it will be a laborious process, and the end result may not be a particularly stable system. You certainly won’t be able to go out, buy OS X, stick the install DVD in a Dell PC, and have it just work. Apple intends Mac OS X to only run on Apple hardware.

Will my Intel-based Mac be able to run Windows?

It seems likely, although Apple won’t support it. Someone will probably figure a way to install Windows on a Mac system so that you can choose to boot into either OS X or Windows. In addition, consider a future version of Virtual PC that lets you run PC applications at full speed, on a window within your Mac (or on a second monitor). There are some intriguing possibilities here for Mac users who must use Windows applications some of the time.

But if all Macs one day will be able to run Windows, won’t application developers stop creating Mac versions of their programs?

It’s possible, but not very likely. Mac users are Mac users because they want to run software in the Mac interface. The large software companies that publish programs on the Mac understand that, and so do the small Mac developers who are making the coolest OS X apps around. I’d tell you that the middle-range developers with a flagging commitment to the Mac would be the ones most worth worrying about, but honestly, the Mac OS X transition already shook most of them out of the Mac market.

The future of the Mac games market is somewhat more of an open question, as Peter Cohen discovered when he talked to Mac game developers.

Whatever happened to the megahertz myth?

It’s still true — you can’t compare different chip types solely based on megahertz (or gigahertz). Even Intel has had to deal with this, as some of its chips don’t equate to the speed-per-megahertz ratings of its other chips. Apple clearly feels that Intel’s chips have the best growth path, and so that’s why it’s made this major shift in technology.

On the positive side, having Apple use Intel chips will eliminate the ability for PC users to use the gigahertz of a Mac’s processor against them. And with the processors being equal, we will be able to make a much more direct comparison between the speed of Mac OS X and Windows XP.

Apple used to bash Intel’s chips. What changed?

Intel’s chips have evolved. Intel is a huge company that has devoted massive resources to improving its chip technology. It’s also been spurred on by heavy competition from another PC chipmaker, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Clearly Apple now feels that the future of Intel’s chip architecture is quite bright; otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are today.

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