Why Apple’s switch to Intel is a good thing

With the announcement that Apple is switching to Intel, the computing world has been thrown a curve ball. Speculation will run rampant for the next year. We obviously won’t know what’s going to happen until it happens, but I see a bright future coming out of this. I see Apple with more headroom for the future to create better, faster designs. I see much more opportunity for the hacker community to work with this also.The Hardware

One of the biggest reactions people have had is “Why not AMD?” AMD64 chips are very good processors, but I think this switch runs much deeper than just processor. What would Apple use as a platform had they chosen AMD? The 8xxx series chips? NVidia? ATI? Would Apple risk it’s laptop market on the Turion? I predict that the machines will be all Intel. Processor, Chipsets, network, everything. Intel makes quality parts. There are questions to the Pentium 4, but the Pentium M is a great laptop chip, and I think that’s what Apple needs.

This is a good move for Intel also. Apple can now become a showing of all the newest Intel technology. Intel’s newest audio specs can now be fully supported by Apple the day they come out. ACPI can now work without issue with the closed platform. Does anybody remember EFI? I am willing to bet that Apple will use EFI instead of Open Firmware. This will help move EFI into the consumer space for Intel. BTX? As far as Intel is concerned, the sky’s the limit. There is no existing model of an “Intel Mac” that they have to adhere to. I also bet you will be able to drop in any new processor or video card you want. That should make a lot more people happy.

When people complain about x86, one of the biggest things people complain about is the legacy support built up from years and years. Does anybody run a 16bit real mode OS on Intel chips anymore? I predict these machines are going to be legacy free, just like current Apples. PCI-e only (1 x16 and 3 x1?). WiMax? The newest 802.11 standards? 10gig Ethernet? It’s all available. I think people hear Apple is moving to Intel and thing that Apple is moving. Think of it more as Apple is integrating Intel. I am willing to bet that with this move, Apple’s hardware can now be even more elegant. Imaging a 12″ iBook with a ULV Pentium M and integrated Intel graphics. Could it be done in 3 pounds and get 8 hours of battery life? It’s much more feasible than trying to fit a G5 into a powerbook without making it a HP zd7000. I personally think that Apple could have sold a G5 laptop, but they wouldn’t. Apple would not sell a 10 pound beast that gets 2 hours of battery life, has a constantly running fan, and does not fit into people’s lives. The switch to Intel gives them hope for the future without having to constantly worry about whether they’ll have a chip to compete for the next generation and where to get it from.

The software

Switching hardware architectures is a huge deal. It means that all of your software needs to run on a new architecture. Even if Apple makes it very easy for developers, this is one of the biggest changes they can make. I am willing to bet that the day they release the hardware, every piece of Apple consumer software will work exactly the same as it’s PowerPC counterpart. I’d even bet that most, if not all of the pro apps will be available on Intel the day it comes out. That’s great for Apple. What about everybody else?

The way I see it, there are two groups of developers in this. Those with cross platform apps, and those with Mac only apps. For those with cross platform apps, this is great. Consider Adobe, Alias Wavefront, or Macromedia. Previously, they had to maintain two separate products. Ignoring the flamewar that is SSE vs. Altivec/VMX, these companies only have to maintain one optimized core now, and have different front ends. How many cross platform apps are there that run on Mac, but not Windows? Maybe some UNIX/X only apps, but even those are probably fairly portable anyway. Maybe now all the Adobe products will be on both platforms again.

The other developers are a mixed bag. Running cocoa and Xcode? Great. Carbon? You might have some issues. It is almost impossible to switch platforms without warning people from day 1 that it might happen and not have issues. Especially with older code. But I think most companies/personal developers will rise to the challenge. When you program for Mac, you are making the conscious decision to program for a smaller platform, and as the saying goes, it’s much easier to turn a small ship around. I think Apple will help as much as it can, and try to make the switch easy on developers. Let’s face it, Rosetta is a hack. All software emulators are, but it’s a necessary hack. It will work. It obviously won’t be perfect, but it will smooth the transition, and with my prediction that all of Apple’s software will work perfectly, how many people will be affected? Me and my wife both have Apples, and very little 3rd party software. Office? Already onboard (we’ll see when it’s actually released though.) Firefox? Will be ready day 1. Professionals that rely on third party applications might be affected, but it sounds as though Apple will has support from the big players. You will still be able to use your PowerPC Macs for years to come. I think it will be about as clean an architecture transition as one could hope for.

Why not 64-bit only? There are two parts to a switch to 64-bit. OS (not just the kernel) and application. First of all, OS X isn’t fully 64bit clean to begin with. Neither cocoa or carbon are. I’m not even sure if any of their core frameworks are. I predict the 64bit support will be the same with the switch to Intel as it was on the G5. 64bit kernel, with minimal 64bit app support, but mostly 32bit. It would be too big of a transition for developers to say, “make your software platform agnostic, and make it 64bit clean.”

What Apple loses

Hardcore geeks. PowerPC extremists. But really, now that you’re only left with the choice of x86 on the desktop, are you going to turn away Apple? Just because Apple has changed ISAs, OS X is still that much better than the alternatives. I think there is an initial backlash from the hardest of the hardcore, but I think they’re bluffing. Try switching to Linux from OS X. I dare you (I run Linux, dragonfly, windows, and OS X). It works. But it’s not the same. It’s not as smooth. When was the last time you spent two hours trying to resolve dependencies on OS X? Hell, when was the last time you had to look up an error code in Google because something broke? The experience will still be the same.

What Apple gains

A future. No more MHz myth. Developers who can now settle on one platform, even if it might not be the prettiest to code in assembly. Remember the fiasco that was the Mac release of Doom3? With the same processor and video card, games written in OpenGL should perform almost identical. That’s a big selling point. People have pointed out wine/cedega also. New worlds of possibilities are opened for the hacker community. VMWare? Xen? Will Apple officially support Intel’s virtualization extensions coming out? Who knows, but these are things that could not have been done on PPC. How many people who are complaining about x86 being ugly really know ? Or have to work with/around it? How much software is written in PowerPC assembly? I can think of many more examples written in x86 assembly than PowerPC, and now it will be much more feasibly to bring it to the Mac platform.

What happens to the other OS players?

In the short term, nothing. Will this affect windows users? No. I doubt there will be a price drop because of the switch. I might be wrong, but you’re still buying a premium product, and with that comes a premium price. This might help Apple’s hardware business. I could see a lot of people buying powerbooks and loading windows on them just because the hardware is much nicer than anything out there. Consumers are not going to flock to Apple because of an architecture change. Apple will probably even try to hide this fact from the average consumer. Linux users? Linux users have their own reasons for doing things (I will include BSD users in this too.) They might buy the sexy hardware, but people don’t just run Linux/BSD because it’s the best OS out there. They might want to make it that way, it might be good enough, they might like free software, but it’s not because it’s the best offering out there. Even if it was, Apple switching to Intel does not change the merits or flaws of other systems.


As a geek, I am sorry to see PowerPC get pushed off into an obscure corner, just as I was when Alpha was sent to go play by itself. Things change. An ISA is just a platform. It does not change the feel of the system. As I said earlier, this is not Apple coming to “x86” as people know it. This is x86 coming to Apple.

About the Author:
I’m 22, and have a BS in Computer Science and Applied Math. I have been using computers since I was 8, have been using Linux and BSD since I was 17, and OS X for about a year. I am interested in OS design, and would like to work on a commercial OS some day.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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