03:12 AM

Live from WWDC: Apple switches to Intel. What does it all mean?

By Damien Stolarz for SiliconValleyWatcher

Apple-Intel.gifI just attended the shorter-than-ever Apple keynote address (just an hour) at Moscone Center in San Francisco, where Apple computer finally came out and proclaimed its love for the Intel chip. Although the Wall Street Journal tried to out Apple over the weekend, it really hadn't sunk in for anyone until Steve Jobs spelled it out.

He said that OS X has been living a "secret double life" for more than 5 years - every single version of the OS X has run on Intel, "just in case" since OS X was first released. I got to hear Steve Jobs, the CEO of Intel, and the CEO of Adobe get up on stage and get chummy in that forced, unrelaxed way that CEOs do. It was subdued, understated, brief, and all the while a watershed event.

Technically Unsurprising

Although it's easy to pretend to play it cool, as a Macintosh user since the mid 1980s, I'm not one bit surprised. When I was in college in the early 1990s they had NeXT machines for sale in the UCLA computer store. They had nifty features like Display PostScript - fully real time WYSIWYG display, at a time when my friends were excited to get their hands on Windows 3.0.

When Jobs brought NeXT into Apple almost 10 years ago, the NeXT OS (on which OS X is built) ran on Intel processors - and it had just been ported from the same Motorolla 68k processors that the Macintosh Quadras had been running on. I even have a NeXTStep install CD and floppy - for Intel processors. So NeXT was already cross-architecture, cross platform code.

Since OS X came out, a lot of the lower-level plumbing of the OS - "Darwin" - has been available as an open source project - and portable to Intel. In fact, the slowness of OS X for the first few painful versions was probably because they were porting it from Intel. It wouldn't make much sense to not keep it running on Intel processors, especially when the code was already cross-platform. So the theoretical possibility of an Intel port was always quite obvious to engineers.

What was not clear was whether Apple was going to be able to: 1) survive; 2) keep up with Intel processors. For years, various explanations of the megahertz gap were put forth. The iMac did a great job of marketing the gadget without proclaiming it's speed at all - just as an appliance. Ask an iMac user, they probably don't know the gigahertz or megahertz of their processor.

In the server-class machines, Apple has done a great job overcompensating for their megahertz gap. The top of the line Intel processors, running at 3.4Ghz, are just plain faster than Apple's 2.7Ghz PowerPC chips. But many of the tasks that Mac professionals do, such as video compression, photo editing, digital effects, audio processing, and a dual processor configuration actually helps a lot. Apple's main line of computers come with two processors, so for some tasks you can actually consider it a 5Ghz or 5.4Ghz computer.

This switch to Intel is by no means an admission that the top-of-the-line Apple machine is slower than a top-of-the-line PC. Far from it. Apple's high-end machines are top of the line - their bus speeds, graphics cards, memory, are all state of the art, and in some cases superior to the high-end Intel chipsets.

But there are many tasks for which the raw gigahertz is necessary, and for general purpose application functionality, nothing beats clock speed when it comes to performance. The dual processor is never going to kick in to help you with word processing.

Apple has always secretly felt that two small ones just isn't as good as one big one, and that's why they've been seeing Intel on the side for five years.

Fast Roadmap

Apple has set an aggressive roadmap to be shipping an Intel-based Mac by one year from now, and to switch over to Intel processors completely by 2007. All the developers are being offered a $1000 3.4 Ghz Pentium 4 machine, in a shiny Apple G5 case, to "borrow" for a year and port their applications.

Switching applications to run on the new processor only takes a couple of hours to weeks, depending on the application. They got some testimonials on stage to prove that point. There's a simple checkbox in the Apple developer tools to create these new "universal applications" that run on both PowerPC and Intel computers. In traditional Apple style, the technical impact of the change is being carefully managed, and notwithstanding from legions of uninformed sales people and consumers giving bungled explanations to each other about what it all means, the transition may be seamless.

Switching hardware architectures isn't rocket science. Linux developers do it every day of the week, so porting from the second most common processor to the most common processor is somewhat of a yawn with the current development tools.

Attack of the Clones

The frustrating thing for consumers at large will be the need to pay Apple a premium for what appears to be the same commodity hardware powering the Windows platform. No longer will there be some exotic, foreign quality that can justify a high-margin machine. Sure, Apple can produce a dual- or quad- processor Pentium machine and, since few PC manufacturers do this themselves, Apple will be able to compete there. And in the low end, Apple's iMacs are appliances, and using Intel or PowerPC or an AMD chip for that matter would be irrelevant to that target market.

But for middle-of-the road PC purchasers looking to spend around $1000-$1500 for a fast PC, the requirement to buy a proprietary Mac version of commodity hardware will be off-putting. Used to cobbling together a high end PC with some of their own parts, their expensive last-generation video card, and a new CPU and motherboard, cross-platform users like myself will suddenly bring with them the expectancy that they can run Mac OS on every PC they own - just like I can do today with Linux or Windows.

I have dozens of machines at my disposal, and I run Linux, Win XP or XP Server on them - as needed for the specific task - without thinking about it. I buy all my licenses. I would buy DOZENS of copies of OS X if I could run it on all my hardware. But I'm concerned that Apple will cripple the OS to only run on their Intel machines.

Editor's Note: Cnet reported that Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller categorically stated that other Intel-based PCs will not be running MacOS: "We will not allow running Mac OS X on anything other than an Apple Mac."

But what if they don't? Apple is on a many-year high. Their stock just split. They've got the strongest chance to take market share from Microsoft ever. If they suddenly ran on all hardware - their OS would be a real contender.

Plus, emulation is now child's play. I have Microsoft's virtual PC on my Powerbook. It emulates a Pentium II at around 300Mhz - pitifully slow, but just fast enough for me to bring up any Windows app I need. But I can't use it for any length of time. Now, with a top-of-the line PC (Mac users have a median salary well above the Windows users, so they tend to have faster machines) I would have full-speed Windows emulation.

Editor's Note: Schiller said Apple wouldn't do anything to preclude people running Windows on Intel-based Macs.

Suddenly Linux projects like Wine (Windows emulation) will be able to flourish on the Mac platform and run Windows apps on Mac at full speed. This is significant - many developers would love to run a stable UNIX, like Mac OS X, and have Windows where it belongs - in a Window - on their desktop.

Mac tried the clone approach a decade ago, and Jobs came in and ended it. Many people consider that it was killing the platform - cheaper, higher-performance Macs were available from third parties. But Apple is in a different position today. Their business isn't entirely dependent on computer sales - the iPod has given them billions to play with. New media-changing industries, like podcasting, are not only named after their products, but are being re-incorporated into their products. Apple has tremendous control over the future of the fast-changing multimedia industry, just as they had with DTP in the 1980s. They're looking stronger than ever.

What does it all mean? Things change. The Cold War ended in a fizzle in 1989. By 2020, Microsoft may not own the desktop any more.