My friend Mark e-mailed me shortly after hearing the news on Monday: "Say it isn't so, MacBoy! " It's so. At Apple Computer's Worldwide...
My friend Mark e-mailed me shortly after hearing the news on Monday: “Say it isn’t so, MacBoy!”
At Apple Computer’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco, Steve Jobs announced that, beginning in 2006, the Macintosh will move to using Intel processors instead of the PowerPC processors that have run Macs since 1994. The first Intel-powered Macs should be available at this time next year, with the complete transition wrapping up by the end of 2007.
For some Mac loyalists, the news comes as a shock. After viewing Intel and Microsoft as the dark knights of computing evil, what does it mean that white knight Apple is now embracing one? And how does this affect Mac buying decisions for the next two years?
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Concrete details are still trickling out. We don’t yet know which processors will be used, which Macs will see the transition first (though Cnet reported that the migration will start with low-end Macs), and how difficult it will be for developers to update their applications to run on the new hardware. But we can extrapolate a few things based on Apple’s announcements.
(Apple posted a QuickTime stream of Steve Jobs’ keynote at stream.apple.akadns.net/ if you want to watch.)
For most users, the processor inside the box won’t matter. Using Mac OS X will be just as it is today, because you’re interacting with the software, not the hardware directly. Jobs showed Mac OS X 10.4.1 Tiger running on an Intel-powered demonstration machine, and Tiger is what will ship on the Intel boxes.
The next major version of the operating system, to be called Leopard, is expected in 2007. Jobs didn’t go into any more detail about Leopard but given the timeline, I suspect that it won’t require an Intel-powered machine.
The story is likely to be slightly different for professional users running processor-intensive applications such as Final Cut Pro, which will require more time by developers to adapt for the new hardware. For example, many of these programs rely heavily on features specific to the G4 and G5 processors, such as AltiVec (also known as Velocity Engine), which aren’t supported on Intel chips.
High-end graphics software is likely to be affected similarly. Although Jobs demonstrated Adobe Photoshop CS2 running on Intel hardware, he didn’t demonstrate any benchmarks or speed tests, so it’s impossible to know now how the performance will be. This is no doubt why Jobs said that the higher-end systems wouldn’t be available until 2007.
But based on reports from developers at WWDC, the conversion process promises to be easier than the switch from the Motorola 68000 series of processors to the PowerPC. A technology called Rosetta, included on the new machines, makes it possible to run most existing applications without alteration, in real time, at about 70 to 80 percent of the speed of running them on an existing PowerPC Mac.
The Classic environment, however, will no longer be supported, so if you still run Mac OS 9 applications, they won’t survive the switch to Intel.
So what does this mean for someone looking to buy a Mac between now and the end of 2007? One of the biggest fears in the Mac world right now is that Apple will experience the “Osborne effect,” so named for Osborne Computer’s 1980s blunder of prematurely announcing its next generation of computers, which resulted in sales drying up and the bankruptcy of the company.
To counteract that perception, Jobs emphasized several times during his keynote that Apple has “some great PowerPC products yet to come,” and that the migration to Intel won’t be an overnight event.
As with any computer purchase, the general rule is that something better and faster will always be around the corner. If you need a new machine now or in the near future, then buy a new machine. I think this will be especially true of laptops, as Jobs pointed out that IBM’s failure to build a G5 processor that would run cool enough in a laptop was one of the motivations for looking elsewhere.
If you’ve recently bought a Mac and it’s working well for you, it’s not going to become magically obsolete when the first Intel-powered Macs hit the market. In that case, the Intel machines will probably start arriving just as you’re contemplating an upgrade anyway.
One thing you definitely won’t be able to do is run Mac OS X on any off-the-shelf PC. Again, details aren’t available, but Apple has said that it will employ some measure to ensure that Mac OS X runs on Apple hardware, even if there’s an Intel chip at the heart.
Apple still makes most of its money from selling hardware, so some people’s long-held fantasies that Mac OS X will unseat Microsoft as the world’s dominant operating system remain fantasies. However, it’s possible that you’ll be able to install a copy of Windows on the same machine.
Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller said Apple wouldn’t offer Windows as an option (obviously), and wouldn’t support it, but there will likely be no technical reason you couldn’t run Windows on the Mac.
Is the world collapsing because Apple has embraced a former foe? Not at all. Most people probably won’t even notice the difference. The Mac’s ease of use and Mac OS X experience will remain.
I just hope Apple doesn’t stick those annoying Intel Inside stickers on the case.
Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.