Move to Intel by Apple prompts a look back, and ahead

This is certainly not the first time I've written about something Steve Jobs announced during a keynote speech or media event. In the past decade, I've seen more than a few MacWorlds, WorldWide Developer Conferences (WWDC) and other events take place with Steve up there showing us the greatest thing since his last appearance -- and telling us how it's going to bring a shiny new light to the Apple we all know and love.

But this year's WWDC keynote address was different. First, Steve showed up wearing something other than his trademark jeans and black turtleneck. (Did someone break into his car and steal his usual garb on the way to the hall?) More important, this speech, complete with the "Intel Inside" bombshell, left me looking back at Apple's past more than ahead at its future.

All goals old are new again

This is not the first time Mac-on-Intel hardware has been tackled. The first time was actually more than a decade ago when engineers at Apple and Novell joined forces in a secret project code-named Star Trek to go where no Mac OS had gone before: onto an Intel-based computer. The project was scrapped long before the public ever heard about it, but the team was successful in porting a long-ago version of the Mac OS to an Intel-based computer. Had that project gone forward, we could have had Intel-based Macs -- and possibly a licensed version of the Mac OS for PCs -- just before Windows 95 came to market.

Anyone who was around the Mac world in the late 1990s will remember that Mac OS X initially consisted of a conglomeration of technologies from Apple and NeXT that included a "blue box" (which eventually became the Mac Classic software) for older Macintosh applications, and a completely separate "yellow box" environment for modern applications based on the mach microkernel -- which is still used as the current Mac OS X's foundation.

At the time of this confusing project -- remember Rhapsody? -- there was much speculation about the future of the yellow box environment because of the fact that it would be utterly conceivable to ship it for use on Intel hardware -- perhaps offering a Mac OS X for PCs.

So, the idea of Macs using Intel chips is not new. Given the history of what became Mac OS X, it isn't at all surprising that Apple has been building an Intel version since the beginning. Did Apple plan this move years ago? Possibly. But more likely it was hedging its chip bets and keeping open all possible doors. At the time, Apple was in rough shape and the idea of creating a modern operating system (at that point the Holy Grail of Apple and the Mac faithful) that could serve as an alternative PC operating system (many analysts at the time suggested that Apple jettison its hardware business and focus on software) -- or that could be used on Intel-based Macs -- would have been good business sense.

The fact that Apple was able to keep this under wraps for nearly six years impresses me to no end.

Mac OS X on a PC?

Less than an hour after Jobs' keynote address ended yesterday, I started hearing speculation about running Mac OS X on PCs (i.e., Intel computers not built by Apple) as a Windows alternative. I also heard a phrase that I thought was as dead as Al Gore's ambitions for the White House: "Mac clones." So let's look at what I presume are ideas that will never come to pass.

Apple could open Mac OS X up and sell it for any computer on the market today. This would, I'm sure, raise Apple's market share. And the idea that Apple should do so has been batted about for at least 15 years. In the process, however, Apple would lose its control over the hardware that runs Mac OS X -- and keeping that control has allowed Apple to ensure a powerful level of consistency and reliability in terms of how OS X performs, creating a solid and stable overall product.

Perhaps more important, Apple would need to transition to being a software-based manufacturer. Despite the superior design and function of Mac hardware, it is still more expensive than comparable PC hardware. The cost of a transition to Apple, and the impact on the overall product, is simply too great to risk. That's why no move has been made to do so before now (even when Apple was in much worse financial shape than it is today).

Apple will likely ensure that Mac OS X requires specific motherboard designs to run, as it has done with every Mac OS version to date. Remember: The processor is only one component on the motherboard of any computer. It is the most important one in many ways, but the rest of the motherboard and chip-set architectures play a very powerful role in the performance and reliability of the resulting machine. So long as Apple ties the operating system to the chip set and motherboard design, it can prevent Mac OS X from running on a PC, regardless of the processor. In fact, PCs (servers mostly) that use the PowerPC line of processors have been around as long as Macs using the PowerPC. With a few brief exceptions when Mac clones roamed the Earth in the mid-1990s, they never ran any version of the Mac operating system.

Side note: There has been some debate about whether Apple will continue to design Mac motherboards and chip sets or outsource the process to Intel, which designs many motherboards and chip sets for PC manufacturers. My hunch is that Apple will retain its design control because it gives the company tighter control over the platform. I do think there will be a very close relationship between Apple and Intel to certify that the resulting hardware meets a high degree of reliability. This will give Intel Macs an advantage over Intel PCs, which use hardware that may not be so closely certified.

Would Apple allow or partner with other PC manufacturers to release non-Apple Macs (aka Mac clones)? Most likely not. Apple experimented with licensing Mac OS 7 to outside companies in the mid-1990s. The result wasn't increased market share so much as it was decreased sales of Apple hardware, as consumers purchased lower-cost clone options. In fact, one of the first items on Jobs' agenda when he took over as interim CEO in 1997 was to end the clone era.

Windows on a Mac?

The flip side of the Mac OS X-on-a-PC question is whether an Intel Mac could run Windows. So far, Apple seems to have taken a neutral-ground approach to this question, saying it will not actively support running Windows on an Intel-based Mac but is not actively discouraging the idea. That approach implies that Apple won't try to design hardware that prevents Windows from running on its upcoming hardware. Provided someone writes the requisite drivers for whatever motherboard components and chip sets Apple puts in the Intel-based Macs, it should be possible to install Windows.

This actually gives Apple a great transition strategy that it can market to consumers. They can buy a Mac and have all the advantages of Mac OS X, but also boot into Windows if they need to run applications that are not available for Mac OS X. It's actually an advancement in the concept of Virtual PC or the Orange Micro expansion cards of the 1990s. Microsoft might even jump on the bandwagon and provide a new version of Virtual PC that runs Windows from within the Mac OS X environment -- providing access to both operating systems without requiring users to reboot. It would run Windows natively on the Intel processor and would not require the speed-degrading emulation needed by the current version of Virtual PC.

This would combine full Windows performance with the ability to easily switch between platforms, a best-of-both-worlds situation.

The transition

The big question is how the coming transition will affect developers and users. From everything I heard in yesterday's keynote speech and have read in the ensuing discussions, it seems developers should have a fairly easy transition if they are using Apple's XCode developer software. Real Software today announced that applications created using RealBasic should have a relatively easy transition. And most developers seem to support Apple's decision. This is very good news because it is ultimately the developers, and their applications, that Mac users and Apple rely on. Without the developers, Apple would be in trouble.

While most people are comparing this transition to the Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X switch, I see it as much more similar to the move Apple made from Motorola 680x0 processors to the PowerPC a decade ago. Apple will make it possible for Intel Macs to run PowerPC code, much as PowerPC Macs could run 680x0 code. Yes, there will be a performance hit, though no one is yet sure how much. Again, this makes me think of Apple's past. When PowerPC Macs first came out, most applications -- and even huge chunks of the Mac OS itself -- weren't PowerPC native. That meant those first PowerPC Macs were actually slower in practical use then the 680x0 Macs they were supplanting. Eventually, users got software that included code native to both platforms (at the time called Fat Binaries, now called Universal Binaries). And after some time, most everything ran native on the PowerPC Macs.

Apple kept supporting its earlier Macs for quite a while, however.

For most consumers, the coming transition will be transparent. They will probably start seeing stickers on software that identifies titles as being native to both platforms, and then will eventually see requirements for Intel-based Macs. If the process of compiling code as Universal Binaries is as easy as Apple implies, it's conceivable that PowerPC Macs could be in use for a number of years to come.

In fact that, to me, is the biggest question: How long will PowerPC Macs be supported? Although Apple could support them for any number of years, it has a history of removing support for older Macs and forcing users eventually to upgrade.

Mac sales and the hardware lineup for the next two years

Everyone is speculating about whether Apple's sales will slump over the next year as people wait for the first Intel Macs. While I'm sure that there will be those who wait, I'm not so cautious. Personally, I'll still probably go ahead and replace my 500-MHz G3-based iBook this year. I don't know when Apple will get around to making an Intel iBook, and I doubt it will be the first thing on the list. It could be as much as two years before the entire product line is switched over, and during that time there will need to be full support for both platforms. Even after that, there will need to be a significant transition period for those last PowerPC Macs sold. In other words, the old adage applies: If you need a new Mac right now, you might as well buy it.

Another consideration to keep in mind is that the first Intel Macs will probably be the buggiest. This happens with every new technology. So, if you need a new Mac in late 2006 or early 2007 -- and need reliability (who doesn't?) -- you might want to wait until six months into the transition period to be sure all the kinks have been worked out. Likewise, consider Apple's track record for having new systems back-ordered for weeks because of extreme demand after they're announced. Even if you opt for a brand-new Intel Mac on the first day you can order one, it may be a couple of months before it actually arrives.

All in all, as Steve Jobs said, this is not new territory for Apple. It may be a bit new for consumers, but I think it may be the smoothest transition in Apple's history. I also think that it probably will reap a number of rewards, both for Apple and for users.

Ryan Faas has been an IT professional and technology writer specializing in Macintosh for 10 years and is co-author of Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration and Troubleshooting, Maintaining and Repairing Macs.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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