6.06.2005 | Apple & Intel together "at last"

So I learned today that Apple is finally switching to the dark side. After shunning Intel's x86 architecture in the entire 20-30 year history of computing, Apple is finally making the switch to Intel, meaning no major computer manufacturer will be using non-x86 architecture. What is x86 architecture? It's the same thing that powered the first IBM personal computer, MS-DOS, and all the old junky stuff we'd like to forget from the early days of computing.

This isn't the first time Apple has made a deal with the devil. In 1998 it announced a partnership with Microsoft in which it distributed Microsoft's Internet Explorer with every Mac, for a time making every computer in the world come with Microsoft's ubiquitous browser. It seems with each new deal Apple's reason for existence -- raison d'ĂȘtre, that is -- seems to fade into the distance.

Not necessarily. The adaptation of Mac OS X to Intel's x86 architecture means that the operating system could someday be offered for ordinary PC users to be installed on their systems, which was always maintained as a possibility when Mac OS X, based on NextStep/OpenStep, Steve Jobs' old company, became the primary operating system for Macintosh systems. In fact Jobs revealed at this week's conference that every version of OS X since the first in 2001 has been "living a secret life" -- capable of running on both Intel-based and PowerPC-based systems (PowerPC are the IBM chips Apple currently uses to power its systems).

The ability to run on Intel processors also introduces some tantalizing propositions. In 2007 the new version of Windows (codenamed Longhorn) will be out, and its requirements of advanced graphics rendering capabilities similar to those already found on the Mac might enable PC users to run Mac OS X on their PCs (though we'll have to see if this is the route Apple decides to take to promote its OS).

The most powerful case Steve Jobs made for switching to Intel was a performance indicator called "performance per watt" -- a watt being the amount of power a processor has to use to achieve a certain number of functions. PowerPC chips, including the latest G5 which for now can only run on desktops, require too much power to fit into laptops and provide the advanced performance that Intel will be offering in the near future. This is the most commonsense reason Apple had to make the switch.

Now, what does it mean to Mac users, or those who are planning to buy a Mac? Not to worry. The switch to Intel in no way means your existing PowerPC Mac is outdated. At the conference Jobs demonstrated some amazing capabilities of OS X which will provide backward-compatible support for PowerPC programs on Intel computers, and the transition to Intel-based programs will allow for "double binary" programs that can run on both Intel and PowerPC systems for the foreseeable future.

The most exciting aspect is that PowerPC programs will be able to run on the Intel machines with amazing smoothness and reliability, with no visible program or emulator running. A feature of OS X called "Rosetta" automatically translates PowerPC programs onto the Intel architecture, allowing the system to run flawlessly. Meanwhile, existing PowerPC users will be able to continue to purchase new programs offering support for both PowerPC and Intel-based OS X processors.

After watching the Developers Conference video on apple.com, I am still 100% convinced that I still need to buy a Mac now to take advantage of OS X Tiger's latest features, features that won't be available on Windows until 2007. By then, Apple will have a new version out already, and you can buy a new Intel-based Apple as time (and budget) permits. This is a major shakeup in the computing world, but everyone can continue to benefit from Apple's superior feature set and enjoyable user experience.

If you haven't already, you can watch the video here. On Apple QuickTime, of course.

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