Macintosh Computers: Intel Inside, Intel Upside?

OR "The Sky is Falling, the sky is falling"

By Graham K. Rogers

Edited, 27 July 2005

In The Pirates of Silicon Valley, the Bill Gates character says of the first Mac OS, "I want it. I want it" I was reminded of this by Insanely Great Mac after Steve Jobs announced that Macs will run on Intel chips. The move (due at the end of 2006, when OS X 10.5, Leopard, is due) has rippled through the computer world: much misinformation was spread in the first days. The best analysis was by Walt Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal.

Some claimed that the sky was falling. Others including developers of Mac software, to whom the announcement was made, seemed to take it in their stride: a collective shrug. The major areas of discussion have been: Windows on Macs; and OSX on PCs; Why the switch; old software; and the current PowerPC range.

We do not know the details, but Jobs did say that OSX is at the centre of things. One should remember that Apple is primarily a hardware company. He also confessed that for the last five years, OSX has been running comfortably in a secret lab: Project Marklar (after characters in a TV program). See below.

Developer machines have been made available with a Pentium 4 660 3.6GHz chip, at $999. They must be returned: Apple do not want pre-production computers floating around.

Apple has often performed a balancing act with its hardware, and using different chips is not new. Apple switched to IBM from Motorola in the mid-90s and the software then continued to run on the new computers. With the G-series chips, it is still possible to run system 9, although since 2004 it has only been possible to start up in OSX. Older versions of Apple operating systems are available. Users are not left in the lurch; and Apple is using Rosetta (initially developed at Manchester University) to run PowerPC software on the test Pentium machines.

Just because it has Intel Inside on the box, does not mean that we will be using any of the current chips. An important (but unknown) detail is the particular Intel chip to be used. Speculation suggests that Apple may use one not based on the Pentium M-series. Some of the names bandied about have been "Merom, the mobile part, Conroe, the desktop, and Woodcrest; followed by Whitefield, essentially a four core follow on to Woodcrest" (Inquirer).

As these chips are newly designed, perhaps Apple has asked for some specifics to be included to tie the chips closely to OSX. Windows XP does run on the test setup: current Macs are able to run DoS and Windows with emulators. It is not normally possible to run OSX on a PC (excluding the extremely slow experiment of Pear): this is unlikely to change or it might create problems with Microsoft.

Why has Apple made the move? The short answer is "business": they want to make money. Profitability in the industry means innovation and evolution: not standing still. With the PowerPC there was evidence of stagnation, along with failed promises (the 3GHz chip) and heat problems that would not allow development of a G5 PowerBook. Intel gives Apple the supply and design guarantees that were not previously forthcoming.

With Sony and Microsoft taking up PowerPC chips, Apple became less important with its relatively low volumes. A few days before the announcement, Anand Chandrasekher, said, "Apple is a design win that we've coveted for 20 years . . . We will never give up on Apple" (InfoWorld News).

Devlopers are reacting positively. Several have been interviewed, confirming that, in many instances, there is not much more than some minor rewriting. For MatLab, for example, a hefty package, 20 lines of code needed to be fixed. Another developer only had to "click one button" and the job was done. However, these were native OSX applications; others may not have be so easy.

Finally, the equation includes us: the users. PowerPCs are unaffected (including purchases made before the Intel ranges). We will use Tiger or (when it comes) Leopard. The new machines will run OSX. Appplications we use now will be recoded if necessary. New software and new hardware (e.g. video output) will evolve. We should not be able to detect that there has been any change.

Note: I erroneously called the Mac-Intel project Merkel, now corrected to Marklar. (Merkel, by the way is a German company that makes magnificent sporting guns; and there is also a pre-WW 1 motorcycle.)

Made on Mac

For further information, e-mail to Graham K. Rogers.

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