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  • The Apple/Intel Report: A Seamless Transition?

    June 11th, 2005

    I suppose it’s getting boring by now. So much has been written about Apple’s transition to Intel processors that I doubt there’s much more to say. Indeed, I was reluctant to dive in with further discussion, but a few things are still nagging me. First and foremost, whether you should be an early adopter. No doubt many of you will be champing a the bit, waiting for the first Macs with Intel Inside to go on sale. I’m sure the news will come with the appropriate flair and flourish for which Apple is known. It’s also possible the new computers will feature distinct redesigns to separate them from the previous models, or perhaps not.

    Do you recall the first Macs with PowerPC chips? I remember buying one of the last 68040 models, the Quadra 800, in 1993. The following year, Apple introduced the Power Macintosh 8100. If you didn’t look too closely at the model designation, you probably couldn’t tell them apart, since they used the same cases. Open the box and you encountered the same misbegotten layout, where you had to pull the motherboard to change RAM. Start it up and, yes, it still worked like a Mac. In fact, if anything, it seemed somewhat slower than the model it replaced, simply because there was little, if any, native PowerPC software available.

    At this early stage, I’m sure Apple has different industrial designs for its new MacIntels, or whatever you want to call them, undergoing testing in one or more of those secret repositories at One Infinite Loop. Perhaps Steve Jobs and his crew are wondering if they should take the same approach, to symbolize that the new processor is just a natural progression from existing models. This may impart a sense of familiarity. It’s still a Mac, and it still runs Mac OS X, and, assuming there is enough updated software available, it’ll just be faster. Compare that to moving from a G4 to a G5, and you’ll get the picture.

    On the other hand, today’s Apple may be tempted to make a fashion statement, to stake out new territory, demonstrate that it’s entering a new era in which Macs deliver previously unheard of performance. So you’ll see new lines of Macs that look daringly different, distinct, conveying the clear message of the new order.

    Final decisions may not come for a while, although the rumor mills will be buzzing big time in the coming months.

    Another major factor in the transition is how software publishers will handle the upgrades to Universal Binaries. If you take Steve Jobs at face value, and he is known to, well, stretch the boundaries, it’ll be a cake walk for many developers. I’ve already read a blog here and there indicating that some programs may only require a few hours of work to be compatible. If that’s the case, then the new versions ought to be available free, or, worst case scenario, for a $9.95 or $19.95 fee for the new CDs, plus shipping and handling. If the updates require only minor modifications, perhaps a downloadable updater is sufficient.

    Applications that are built with lots of legacy code, going back to the Classic Mac OS era, may present far greater obstacles. It may take months of hard work to deliver a reliable update, taking maximum advantage of both the PowerPC and Pentium. Publishers facing this daunting task will be tempted to charge for a full version upgrade. Consider the first Mac OS X version of Microsoft Office, which only had a handful of new features, yet exacted the the standard upgrade fee. Quark Inc. pulled very much the same stunt with XPress 6.0, although 6.1 and 6.5, both free updates with new features, have lessened the pain somewhat.

    I can well believe that both Adobe and Microsoft will deliver Universal Binary versions of their flagship applications as promised. No doubt Microsoft will hold out for the next version of Office to deliver the goods. On the other hand, Adobe may not wait for the inevitable CS 3 upgrade. As you may recall, when the PowerPC first appeared, there was a free plugin for Photoshop that allowed some filters to run native and thus enhance performance. Ditto for the G4’s Velocity Engine. These were stopgaps until full version upgrades arrived, but grand gestures nonetheless. I expect that InDesign and Illustrator will run well enough in emulation not to require immediate updates to run native on the x86 Intel processor, but it would be nice to see an interim Photoshop update, even if it is, as before, limited to the most processor heavy filters.

    The final part of the equation is how Apple will handle those frequent updates to Intel processors. While it has taken from six months to a year for a new Mac with a faster G4 or G5 to appear, the Pentium exists in a different, faster moving time zone. Windows power users, some of whom simply build their PCs from scratch using industry standard components, are used to replacing processors on a fairly frequent basis. So long as the support chips don’t change, it’s just a matter of unplugging one processor and plugging in its faster replacement. Sure, you can upgrade the processor on a number of Macs even today, but these upgrades aren’t officially supported by Apple.

    Assuming Apple is going to use standard, off-the-shelf Intel processors, that situation may be poised for a big change. As it did once before for a short period of time, maybe Apple will once again sell boxed processor upgrades, officially supported. And perhaps the third party suppliers of today’s Mac upgrades will even find economical ways to make a PowerPC receive an Intel Inside brain transplant.



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