- The Tech Night Owl — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com -

The Ongoing, Never Ending WWDC Report: What is a Mac, Really?

As developers begin to sort out what they really have to do to make their products run on both the PowerPC and Intel processors, the rest of the Mac universe might just be worrying what has really happened here. For so long, Intel was seen as the enemy, part of the great conspiracy, led by Microsoft, to dominate the PC industry and sweep all comers aside. Now Steve Jobs is telling us that Intel is our friend.

Taking emotions out of the picture, there’s the fundamental question: What makes a Mac a Mac? On the surface that seems an easy question. Combine cutting edge design with a first class, user friendly, operating system. It’s so obvious, why should I even bother to ask? But it’s not that simple, and the issue may seem more cloudy when you ponder the implications of Apple’s latest processor shift strategy.

In the early days, a Mac had a Motorola processor, beginning with the 68000 and ending with the 68040. Peripheral ports included SCSI for hard drives, and NuBus for expansion cards. The Mac OS reigned supreme as the best graphical operating system on the planet. But in 1994, Apple began to phase out its existing processor chips, and began the transition to PowerPC. At the same time, developers had to reinvent their products, making software compatible with the new order, and it wasn’t always easy. In fact, it ended up taking a year or two, and perhaps longer, to make the switch; some just gave up and switched to Windows and a much larger market. At first, applications were shipped as “fat binaries,” meaning they supported both the 680×0 and PowerPC architectures. An emulator was included on those new computers to allow you to run older software. In the end, however, the Power Mac was still a Mac, no question about it. Despite the changes underneath, the operating system still looked the same.

The following year, NuBus was phased out and replaced with PCI, an expansion card technology that had also been embraced by the Dark Side. The upshot? Well, where you once had to pay upwards of two thousand dollars for a high performance graphics card, the price went down considerably. You benefited by the economies of scale. By 1998, with the arrival of the iMac, Apple adopted USB as the standard serial port, and the following year essentially ditched SCSI (except as an option) and embraced FireWire for external drives, scanners and other devices.

And, despite all the changes, your Mac was still a Mac.

Do you recall the brief era of the Mac OS clone? Apple licensed several companies, giving them the right to stuff Apple-designed motherboards and other circuitry into cheap PC, anonymous looking PC boxes. Yes, it looked a little generic, but when all was said and done, you still used the same operating system, and when you looked at your monitor, you knew you were still using a Mac, even if it was built by a different company.

From System 1.0 to Mac OS 9, there was never a doubt in your mind. Despite subtle enhancements in the look and feel, and a bulging feature set, you knew you still had a Mac.

The arrival of Mac OS X may have seemed rather jarring in the scheme of things. Yes, you still had a desktop, folders and an Apple menu, you interacted with the operating system in pretty much the same way, but it looked so different. And beneath the graphical veneer lay the arcane, command line world of Unix. In fact, despite the use of the word Mac, the new operating system bore very little resemblance to the old.

Now maybe some of you had difficulty accepting that degree of change, but you never felt the need to question whether or not you still had Mac. Well, I suppose that applies to most of you, although others regarded it as a great conspiracy in which the NeXT operating system supplanted the real Mac OS right before our eyes.

No matter. Now we are poised for an even greater change in the scheme of things, and that is the end of the PowerPC, and the beginning of the Intel Inside era. You used to laugh at that silly Intel stinger on a Dell or Gateway commercial. Who really cares, and, besides, doesn’t the PowerPC smoke the Pentium in virtually every single benchmark? Besides, aren’t those Pentiums too hot anyway?

But the truth was really out there for quite some time now, only we didn’t see it, or didn’t want to see it. Steve Jobs wanted to have options, and so there was a parallel development of Mac OS X on Intel processors, just in case. Motorola and its processor spin-off, Freescale, were perennially late to the party in delivering faster chips in sufficient qualities to Apple. With the arrival of the G5 from IBM, Steve Jobs said things would be different, that we’d see a 3GHz version by the summer of 2004.

Instead, the chips didn’t scale up near as fast as expected, and getting them in sufficient quantities remained difficult. The fastest Macs now require liquid cooling systems to keep the processors from frying, and putting a G5 in a PowerBook remains the “mother of all thermal challenges.” At the same time, Intel has continued to tame its Pentium to deliver high performance with low power consumption in a laptop computer.

By the end of 2007, all new Macs will have Intel processors. If all goes as planned, they will have all the advanced features you expect, such as dual cores, superb performance, low power consumption, and they will ship on time, in sufficient quantities to build all the computers Apple can sell. If Steve Jobs is even half right in his promises during Monday’s keynote, developers will be able to build Universal Binaries, software that supports the PowerPC and Pentium, in days, weeks or perhaps a few months at most. Mac OS X will still be Mac OS X. It will look the same, and it will run only on Apple’s computers. Despite all the changes inside, the Mac will still be a Mac, and that won’t change for a long, long time.