One year later: How Apple's Intel transition is going

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Apple sent a seismic shockwave through the Mac market a year ago when it announced that was ditching its long-time processor suppliers IBM and Motorola in favor of chips from occasional arch-nemesis Intel. The announcement came on June 6, 2005, during Steve Jobs’ Worldwide Developers Conference keynote —by the end of 2007, the Apple CEO said, all Mac hardware would be running on Intel processors.

Initial reaction to the news was largely positive, especially in light of the fact that Intel’s chips had often been the target of fairly sharp criticism from Apple. But as hopeful as developers and users were last June, more than a few probably wondered just how smooth Apple’s transition to Intel processors would go.

A year later, they have their answer: pretty smoothly.

“The transition is most impressive because of the complete lack of disruption that it has caused,” said Van Baker, vice president of research at IT-research firm Gartner. “It’s been a pretty painless transition—they got much better performance and kept the price points at or pretty near where they were.”

Indeed, a little more than 365 days after Jobs’ bombshell, Apple has already moved most of its hardware to the new processors. All major Mac developers have committed to releasing versions of their programs that run natively on Intel chips—many native apps, large and small, are already available for Intel-based Macs. Not bad for a company in the midst of a major shift in its business.

“The transition has occurred faster than I thought it would, and with less problems than I had anticipated,” said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal.

Hardware happenings

Apple kicked off the year by introducing its first Intel-powered offerings—the iMac and the 15-inch MacBook Pro. These first Intel-based Macs came a full six months ahead of what most people expected, signaling a good start to the transition for Apple.

Other hardware soon added Intel’s Core Duo chip—the Mac mini and the 13-inch MacBook (which replaced the PowerPC-based iBook line and the 12-inch PowerBook G4 laptop). So, after one year, Apple has put Intel processors into all of the hardware aimed at consumers as well as its professional laptop offerings. All that awaits the Intel treatment are Apple’s servers and a high-end desktop machines. Analysts expect Mac users won’t have to wait too long for those systems to appear.

“I think the servers and desktops are held up because Apple is waiting for Intel to give them better performance with some new chips,” Baker said. “Those chips should be coming along very shortly now.”

The developers sign on

Heading into the Intel transition, a major concern for Mac users was how long they would have to wait for Universal Binary versions of their favorite programs that could run natively on the new systems. Most applications written for PowerPC machines can run on Intel-based Macs, thanks to Apple’s Rosetta emulation technology. But there’s a performance hit, especially for processor-intensive applications.

Of particular interest to Mac users has been the status of applications such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, and Quark’s QuarkXPress—staples of professional Mac users. The three companies have promised to release Intel-native versions of those applications, although none have shipped yet.

Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen said earlier this year that a Universal Binary version of his company’s Creative Suite —which includes Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and GoLive—should be ready in Spring 2007. On other occasions, Adobe has said that it’s evaluating transition plans for After Effects and InCopy as well the programs it inherited from its purchase of Macromedia.

Microsoft has said that it will develop an Intel-native version of Office. Earlier this year, the company revealed that it signed a new five-year technology agreement with Apple which commits the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant to developing Office for both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs.

Quark released QuarkXPress 7 in late May as a PowerPC application. It expects a Universal Binary version for Intel machines to be ready this summer.

Even though some of the biggest applications for the Intel Mac may still be almost a year away, analysts have already said that they don’t believe that will cause the Intel transition to stall.

The easiest transition of all

Developers have reported few problems getting their software to run natively on Intel machines. “I was really surprised how easy it was,” said John Casasanta, president of Inventive Software, which makes the multiple clipboard/scrapbook program iClip. “When Steve [Jobs] said it was just a matter of clicking the checkbox, that’s pretty much what it was for iClip Lite. iClip has been a bit more of a transition for us because it is a Carbon application and we rely on some third-party dependencies.”

It is these issues of dependencies that have caused some developers grief over the last few months, but Casasanta said it’s not bad at all. Currently developing the next version of iClip, Casasanta said that the Intel native version is planned for release in September when beta testing is complete.

Keith Gugliotto of Splasm Software said he’s had pretty much the same experience getting the iPod video conversion software Viddy Up ready for Intel Macs. While there were a few problems, it only took a few hours to port the application to be Intel native.

“There really weren’t that many bad things about it—Apple had already done all the work,” Gugliotto said. “[Apple] kept up OS X on Intel hardware and a system was devised to send out transition kits to developers. Everything just worked.”

Analysts say it’s clear Apple put a lot of planning into this latest transition, and that both the company and its third-party developers are reaping the benefits. “The fact that they ran OS X on Intel processors for four years before they ever brought it out shows the amount of energy that they invested in the transition,” Gartner’s Baker said.

Apple declined to comment on the Intel transition, citing the SEC-mandated quiet period in advance of announcing its quarterly earnings. However, in public comments, company executives have been bullish on how things are going. “We continue to be very happy with our progress in the Intel transition” Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer told analysts during a quarterly earnings call in April. “We have introduced the MacBook Pro, new iMac and new Mac mini with Intel processors and we are solidly on track to have our entire Mac product line transitioned by the end of this calendar year.”

And developer Casasanta said that Apple has been doing a lot of things right lately. From making its Xcode developer tools free to planning and sending Intel machines to developers for software testing, the process of porting to Intel has been pretty seamless.

A Mac developer for the last 20 years, Casasanta knows about transitions. He was around for the move to PowerPC chips, the OS 9-to-OS X switch, and now the move to Intel. There is no question that this was the easiest, he said.

Boot Camp and virtualization

As well as the transition to Intel chips has gone, a few issues remain. Chief among them is the arrival of Boot Camp, beta software from Apple that lets Intel-based Mac owners install and run Windows on their machines. Apple plans to integrate Boot Camp into OS X 10.5, but has been mum on the details.

Boot Camp isn’t the only avenue for Intel-based Mac owners to run Windows on their computer. Parallels has released Parallels Desktop, a virtualization software that allows users to simultaneously run OS X and Windows (something Boot Camp can’t do).

The ability to easily run Windows on Intel-based Mac hardware poses a dilemma for some developers. If users can switch over to a Windows environment on their Macs, software makers worry that they could be squeezed out in favor of Windows-native offerings.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Splasm Software’s Gugliotto. “It looks like a win for Apple and it looks like a win for the users… as a Cocoa developer it feels like a slap in the face.”

Analysts believe Mac developers have little reason to worry. For one thing, it doesn’t make economic sense to buy a Mac to specifically run Windows. And analysts also contend that Mac OS X is ahead of Windows as an operating system.

“Apple is very willing to entertain the comparison [between the Mac and Windows] because they clearly believe they will come out favorably in that comparison,” said Baker. “I’m inclined to agree with them—OS X is fast and stable. Most of the features we are going to see in [Windows] Vista have been in OS X for quite some time.”

Regardless of how Boot Camp is implemented in Mac OS X Leopard, developers like Inventive’s Casasanta aren’t going anywhere. “We are Mac only and that’s it,” said Casasanta. “There is plenty of business to be had in this market. From a business point of view and from the point of view of what I love doing there are a lot of avenues to prosper as a Macintosh developer.”

This story, "One year later: How Apple's Intel transition is going" was originally published by PCWorld.

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