Where did we go right?

I wasn’t working in the Mac biz when Apple moved from 680X0 chips to PowerPC processors. But the grizzled veterans who were here assure me that it was simply dreadful. I was around for the OS 9-to-OS X transition, and that didn’t strike me as particularly pleasant. I remember installing Mac OS X not long after its March 2001 release—and switching back to OS 9 just as soon as the system preferences let me. It wasn’t until OS X 10.1 came around in September of that year that I began using OS X in earnest—and it really wasn’t until 10.2 came out about a year later that I really felt comfortable with the new OS.

The moral of this stroll down not-so-happy memory lane: technology transitions tend to be nasty, brutish, and not nearly as short as you would prefer. I haven’t seen one yet where all but the hardiest, most daring individuals had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future.

At least, I hadn’t seen a transition like that until Apple decided to make the switch to Intel-supplied processors.

Elsewhere on this site, my colleague Jim Dalrymple attempts to find out how the Intel transition is going a year after Apple announced the move. The answer: swimmingly, at least if you talk to developers and analysts. And it’s hard to dispute the point.

After all, every bit of Apple hardware, save for the Xserve and whatever pro desktop will replace the Power Mac, now runs on an Intel processor. A whole mess of applications already run natively on Intel-based Macs, with a bunch more waiting in the wings. Sure, you get a doom-and-gloom writer complaining about the pace at which high-profile Universal binaries are appearing every now and again, but for the most part, the past year has been noticeably lacking the Sturm und Drang that normally accompanies these sorts of migrations.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons why Apple’s transition is going so well.

  1. You don’t have to make the transition unless you want to. Really, that’s true of any transition—no one poked me with a sharp stick to make me install that OS X 10.0 CD, after all. But it seems to be more of the case with this Intel shift: If you’re happy with your Power Mac or PowerBook or iMac G5 and the apps that you rely on aren’t available in Universal Binary yet, by all means, keep on keeping on. Developers are still coming out with updates that run perfectly well on PowerPC machines; OS X 10.5 is, in all likelihood, going to run on both PowerPC and Intel chips, too. So really, the people making the jump to Intel-based Macs at this juncture are doing so because they really want to use the new hardware—spending anywhere from $599 to $2,500 on a new Mac tends to diminish any lingering ambivalence about the new world order. And that means a bunch of Intel-based Mac owners who are inclined to be pleased with how things are going so far.
  2. New hardware isn’t the same thing as a new OS. Making the jump from an old, familiar operating system to a new state-of-the-art one involves unlearning years of behavior and getting accustomed to the new features. OS X’s Dock used to cause me all sorts of torment; now, using it is like second nature. Adjusting to new hardware isn’t nearly so traumatic. The Intel-based Macs work exactly like the PowerPC versions, only faster if you happen to be running an Intel-native app (or slower, if you’re doing some processor-intensive work in a non-native program like Photoshop). There’s not the steep learning curve there was with OS X.
  3. Apple thought this thing out pretty well. It’s worth remembering that every version of OS X ever built was compiled for both PowerPC and Intel chips, long before Apple ever breathed a word of this transition plan in public. So by the time Apple was ready to unveil its Intel plans, it had all its ducks in a row, including an OS that could run flawlessly on the new hardware. That goes a long way toward explaining why things work as well as they do.

A year ago, we talked to a fair amount of Mac users about the Intel transition. And while there was a noticeable level of trepidation among some users, the general consensus seemed to be: If I can sit down at a computer and do what I need to do without any hiccups or interruptions, I really don’t care what kind of chip is inside my Mac. And that’s what Apple, Intel, and the software developers have managed to deliver—I can sit down in front of a MacBook Pro and get the same experience that I would from a PowerBook G4, save for the built-in iSight camera staring back at me. PowerPC or Intel Core Duo chip, I’m still using a Mac.

And that’s why the Intel transition has gone as smoothly as it has.

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