Apple Intel

Published 18 years, 11 months past

I go to England and Apple launches the switch campaign to end all such campaigns: moving from IBM’s PowerPC chip to Intel architecture.  Coincidence?

Pretty much, yeah.

I know that a zillion electrons have been spilled on this topic, and I’m going to add my own thoughts without the benefit of having actually read what anyone else has said about it.  So if everything I say here is a duplication of everyone else’s writing, it’s at least an original duplication, if you see what I mean.

At the core (Ha! I kill me!), it shouldn’t really matter what chip sits at the heart of a Macintosh.  Did it bother me when Apple switched from Motorola’s chips to the PowerPC?  No.  I’ve historically been far more bothered by changes in interface, like the jump from OS 9 to OS X.  I have made that transition, but it took me a long time and I still sometimes pine for the old days.

Regardless, it does seem to bother me at some level that I could be running an Intel-based system in the semi-near future.  Maybe it’s all those old jeering comments I made about fundamental addition bugs and excessive heat production coming home to roost.  Maybe it’s that the hipper-than-thou, apart-from-the-crowd semi-cultishness of the Mac extends down to the hardware layer: now instead of having l33t hardware that I paid good money to get, I’m merely going to have a different OS on the same basic computer as all those boxes out there running Windows, pardon my French.

These are emotional reactions, and I admit that freely.  But emotion is bound up in anything we take seriously, and given that it’s the tool with which I create personal wealth, I take my computer very, very seriously.

I’ll step back from that, however, and look at this with a larger field of view.  Apple has apparently been maintaining Intel versions of OS X for years now, so it isn’t as though they still have to undertake that conversion.  There’s a PowerPC chip emulator called Rosetta that should smooth the transition of software to the new architecture.  Sure, the stuff running on the emulation layer won’t be as efficient as software written natively for Intel architectures, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.  (And also makes me wonder why it’s been such a long, hard trip getting a Mac emulator for the PC.)

Here’s the thing, though: this potentially brings the ability to run OS X to the ninety-plus percent of the computing world that has an Intel machine, of which ninety-plus percent are running Windows.  The success of iTunes for Windows has demonstrated that Windows users don’t give a flip who wrote their software, as long as it gives them something they want and is easy to use.

So the move has the distinct potential to play to Apple’s strengths as a software developer.  It could put the whole iLife suite on desktops everywhere through Intel-compatible OS X or even some other route.  It could make it easier for Apple to create a Windows-compatible version of iLife.  It might (though I can’t be sure, not being a developer) make it easier for Windows applications to be ported to OS X, thus making switches between Windows and Mac OS a lot less painful.  It might even make it possible to have Windows running on Apple hardware, and it’s darned sure going to make VirtualPC a lot less virtual.

I freely acknowledge that most users, even given a choice, will pick the classic Wintel combination—how many buy Linux-driven Intel machines these days?  (Yes, it’s more than before, but still not that many.)  How many more would buy non-Apple OSXtel machines, even assuming such a thing to be possible?  Not many.  A lot of the cachet of being a Mac user is having the super-fine hardware, all sleek and well-designed and a heck of a lot sexier than the guy running a Dell Latitude or whatever.  (Yes, some PC makers do go sexy, but they’re usually either trampy ripoffs of Apple’s designs, tricked-out Alienware gamer boxes, or Sony Vaios.)

As I said at the outset, intellectually I don’t care whose chip drives my Mac, so long as my programs still run and the performance isn’t slower than I’d have gotten with the PowerPC chip.  Emotionally, though, I’ll be breaking my long-standing rule against decorating my computers.  After all, I’ll need something to put over the “Intel Inside” sticker.

Comments (10)

  1. “this potentially brings the ability to run OS X to the ninety-plus percent of the computing world that has an Intel machine..”

    “Potentially” is the big word here, as apple will not allow this to happen (I believe that have officially stated that somewhere).

    What *could* happen is being able to boot windows (and linux obviously) onto the new mac machines.

  2. I’ve read of official statements both ways, some saying “no way” and some saying “absolutely”. In both cases I’ve only read reports of said statements, not the statements themselves.

    But no matter what Apple says or tries to do, third parties will figure out a way to let Windows run on Apple hardware, and OS X run on non-Apple PCs. That’s already happened with programs like VirtualPC and PearPC. Having both operating systems on the same chip architecture will make the job of tearing down the wall that much simpler.

  3. You could peel off the Intel ‘badge’.

  4. Having MacOS and Windows on the same processor helps portability only in one specific way: Intel processors lay out data types larger than a byte in “little-endian” format, and PowerPC for MacOS lays out data types larger than a byte in “big-endian” format. This affects code that manipulates data structures at a byte level, typically for binary file formats or protocols or data processing (e.g. image manipulation). Except perhaps for number-crunching applications, this is generally not the majority of the application code. The operating system APIs are very different between Windows and MacOS, which is the primary barrier to porting applications from one platform to another.

    (It will probably be easier to get a Windows emulation environment running under MacOS on an Intel processor, but if I understood you correctly, I believe you were referring to native ports of applications from one OS to another.)

  5. I guess what bothers me about this whole thing is based upon emotions as well. I just switched to Mac. After many years of driving a Honda, I just switched to the Harley of desktops.

    Now, they want to make parts interchangeable in an effort to make the Harley more popular in the market.

    You know, call me a new snob, but I could care less if the OS can be put on a PC. I want my Mac – I’ve already fallen in love with it – and let those who would rather run Mac OSX step to the plate, baby…

  6. The chip is just the chip. Isaac is right, the OS is the hard part. IE: There are fewer Linux games even though my Intel gaming box boots Linux and Windows. The OS is the problem.

    I was shocked too. 1) I thought G5’s were awesome, released some bechmarks right before this that proved otherwise. 2) I thought IBM would push the G5 on the desktop with the Xbox 360 using the G5. 3) I thought heat was a problem on x86, not G5.

    But now the shock is over. What I see as some huge advantages of this deal:
    – Virtual PC won’t have to do h/w translations. It’ll run real nice.
    – Hopefully macs will be cheaper.
    – Hopefully macs will run faster and cooler. My G4 powerbook is a dog.
    – Maybe game developers will think about macs more.

    Gaming and price are the two big negatives about Apple, I hope this helps.

  7. Regarding sales of systems with Linux preinstalled, most Linux users seem to either build their own or buy a Windows-based machine and install Linux over that. As a result its difficult to really compare numbers for that.

  8. I am hard pressed to see Steve Jobs inking any sort of deal that puts a visible Intel sticker on those nice cases. And if Intel wanted the deal as bad as they let on, they may have let that point go…

    Just as I am hard pressed to see Steve Jobs let the machines boot into BIOS. So in those respects, to the average user I don’t think there will be anything visibly different.

    To the person who likes to dig in a little deeper like myself, well, we will just have to adjust to the fact that there is no PowerPC chip inside and we will have plain ol’ x86.

    Like Eric says, ultimatly it shouldn’t matter as long as it is running OS X… but it is just one less thing that makes the Mac platform different. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but always different. It shouldn’t bother me, I doubt I have ever done anything where I could have said “Boy am I glad I did this on a PowerPC chip instead of x86!”. But, yet, on some level it does bother me.

    As for OS X running on commodity PC hardware… will it happen? Yes. Will it run well? Probably not.

    Reason: Apple only has to keep current (or any) drivers for a limited amount of hardware. So, depending on what motherboard chipset they use, and other hardware like video cards etc, OS X may or may not run on just any old PC.

    If Apple goes all Intel on the motherboard then sure maybe some PCs out there will run OS X with a minor amount of hacking to get it to boot. But I doubt if it will ever run as stable as it does on the hardware Apple provides.

    The same works the other way if Apple designs a custom motherboard. Running Windows XP on Apple’s hardware, while feasible, it may run poorly and be crash prone… [jab]wait how is that any different?[/jab]

    My $0.02.

  9. Yes, I can’t envision an ‘intel inside’ sticker on my powerbook – unless it’s a pretty glowing one next to the apple on the lid.

  10. Do you guys even use windows? ;-)

    it’s easy and fun to claim they run poorly and crash. I work with 3 machines–a pc notebook, a pc desktop, and an apple desktop.

    My desktop and notebook run windows XP pro. They network easily & quickly, never crash, and definetly outperform the G4 running OSX, which frequently suffers from application crashes. (My “Mail” program crashes every other day)

    I’m not going to say one is better than the other…but I might be careful of bashing one or the other :D.

    I personally prefer my pc, because even though having worked with macs for sometime, I think my mac functions much slower due to the keyboard combinations. I don’t ever have to touch my pc mouse, and my pc keyboard shortcuts are easy to use. On my mac most of the combos seem to involve pressing 3 or 4 buttons that are side by side with one hand…

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