Intel inside, Mac outside

So the rumors are true. After 11 years, Apple will soon ditch the PowerPC architecture and begin building Macs based on Intel processors. And the first thing we have to do is disentangle emotional reactions from the cold, hard technical facts.

Axis of Evil?

Over the years, Apple and its onetime chip partners, Motorola and IBM, have invested considerable time and money in disparaging both Intel’s processors and its aggressive marketing efforts. (Remember the ads with the guy in the burning lab suit?) For a long time, Intel has been lumped together with Microsoft as the Mac community’s axis of evil: Wintel. To the Mac faithful, that very word stood for everything that was wrong with PCs and right with Macs.

I was one of those faithful. Back in 1993, I went down to Intel for a job interview (one of my journalism teachers had taken a job there). But the whole time I was there, I felt like a sleeper agent. I kept waiting for the Intel CPU Detector to activate, locate the PowerBook 160 hidden in my backpack, and alert the guards who would frog-march me out of the building.

Showing remarkable wisdom for a 23-year-old, I turned down the job at Intel and instead went to work at MacUser magazine. The first big story to come along after I started working there was Apple’s transition to PowerPC processors. The Pentium and the PowerPC, CISC and RISC, processor-emulation technology and the fear of buying soon-to-be-obsolete equipment: that was 1994 in a nutshell.

So to have Intel and Apple working together to drive us through another processor transition is undoubtedly a bit creepy to many of us—though perhaps not as creepy as it would have seemed 11 years ago. Since then, with AMD hard on its heels, Intel has started to look a bit less invincible. Windows, too, has taken its lumps—thanks to some serious security problems and Microsoft’s ongoing inability to ship Longhorn, the next-generation version of the OS. Meanwhile, Apple has kissed and made up with former foe IBM, adopted a new operating system based on Unix, and even started releasing hardware and software that work with Windows.

Swapping Chips

Take away the emotional baggage, and Apple has simply chosen a new chip vendor. In announcing the deal, Steve Jobs pointed out two key facts that anyone who has followed the Mac’s past year or two already knows all too well: the 3GHz Power Mac G5 Jobs promised two years ago still doesn’t exist, and we still don’t have G5-based PowerBooks.

Jobs further explained that Intel’s product roadmap—the chips it’s going to be developing over the next few years—is far better for Apple than IBM’s. Is that a compliment to Intel’s chip-designing prowess, or is it a shot at IBM’s inability to improve the G5 and make it more appropriate for laptop use? Yes on both counts, I’d say.

I don’t think this transition will be nearly as tumultuous as moving from the 680X0 processor family to the PowerPC, or from OS 9 to OS X. Via Rosetta, most apps made for the PowerPC will run on Intel-based systems. And creating Intel-native versions of Mac apps will be much easier than making 680X0 apps work on PowerPC machines or making OS 9 apps run in OS X. The very structure of OS X, which forces developers to write code at a very high level (and which, it should be noted, was designed—as NextStep and OpenStep—to work on multiple processor architectures), should make recompiling programs for Intel-based Macs relatively straightforward.

Clearing Up the Confusion

In my mind, this transition’s biggest drawback isn’t technical or even political. It’s the confusion and misinformation that are going to accompany the change. We’ve tried to lay out everything we know about the situation in a special report that fills this month’s Mac Beat section (page 14). And we’ll continue to stay on top of this transition, both here in Macworld’ s print edition and online at

In the meantime, spread the word: Using Intel chips doesn’t mean that Apple will become a PC cloner. It doesn’t mean that all new Macs will be running 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 does seem to be a slightly different shade of blue.

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