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  • Revisiting the Apple/Intel Connection

    November 26th, 2005

    When 2005 began, I doubt that many of you expected Apple would announce a switch to Intel processors by the middle of the year. At the time, the new products included a pair of product lines that Apple said it wouldn’t produce: The Mac mini and the iPod shuffle. So you knew from the get-go to expect the unexpected, but did you ever believe that would include a switch to Intel processors?

    The news came out of left field, and I scarcely believed the published reports in the mainstream press months later that it was about to happen. Yet when Steve Jobs explained the reasoning, it made perfect sense. Apple had fallen behind the curve with processor performance, particularly the PowerBook, and both Freescale Semiconductor and IBM had failed to deliver the goods. Yes, the rumors that Apple had been doing parallel development of Mac OS X for Intel were true. When Intel CEO Paul Otellini embraced Steve Jobs on the WWDC keynote stage, you could actually believe they had become close friends, though the cynics among you no doubt wonder how long that’ll last.

    In any case, you know that Intel has managed to make its processors better and better and deliver products essentially on schedule. You can’t say that for Apple’s existing chip suppliers. Yes, there’s now a line of dual-core Power Macs, but, like the older models, they can easily replace a space heater in a cold room with a huge network of cooling apparatus. Jobs said that Intel’s roadmap includes both more power and reduced power requirements. And if you don’t believe him, take the fastest Intel-equipped desktop, open the case, and count the number of cooling fans inside.

    In any case, a surprising amount of misinformation arose over the move. Jobs was hiding some secret truth, some said, and the public pronouncements just couldn’t be true. On the other hand, where’s the G5 version of the PowerBook and that long-promised 3GHz Power Mac? When the latter comes, as it eventually will, the processor inside will be made by Intel.

    At first, the skeptics claimed that people would stop buying new Macs in anticipation of the arrival of MacIntels in 2006 and 2007. In the real world, Mac sales hit record levels as more and more folks switched from the Windows platform. Not that sales increases will last forever, and as anticipation grows in the coming year, it may well be that sales of some models will stall. But reading the tea leaves about Apple is a frustrating practice. The company continues to do the unexpected, although examining the list of products it says it won’t produce almost always yields an opposite result.

    Now the other issue is just how many Mac OS X for Intel applications will be available. Depending on whom you ask, making Universal Binary versions, which run on both PowerPC and Intel, can be difficult or unexpectedly easy. It depends on a lot of complicated factors that are of interest strictly to programmers. Those huge productivity applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word, will be among the last to switch, and you’ll probably have to invest in paid upgrades to get them. Other software, such as games, are likely to arrive in Universal Binary form as free downloadable updates. In fact, a few applications for the new architecture are already present, but you’ll never know without inspecting the Get Info window under Tiger. It’s that transparent.

    Older applications will continue to run pretty well under Rosetta, an emulation technology that Apple developed using resources licensed from Transitive Corporation. Supposedly it emulates a G3, which means that applications that take advantage of the enhancements available for the G4 and G5 may not run so well. Yes, there are rumors that Apple has managed to add G4 support to Rosetta, but there’s no confirmation yet at Apple’s site for developers, so time will tell.

    There are also unconfirmed reports that Mac OS X and many applications actually fly along at incredible speeds on the Intel-based test computers Apple is leasing to developers. But since those very developers are prohibited by Apple’s confidentiality agreement to talk about such things in public, you won’t know for sure until the real MacIntels appear.

    Speaking of which, anticipation is high that the first announcements of those computers will be made in January at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco. In fact, expectations are so high, that Apple may indeed be forced to deliver those products whether it wants too or not. To be sure, the Intel processor that supposedly will power those first MacIntels, which bears the nickname Yonah, will reportedly be in volume production early in 2006. If Apple can get the rest of the design elements in place, it could happen. If not, I can see where sales of some of Apple’s products might stall because of the failure to satisfy the hopes and the dreams.

    My emotional center believes it’ll happen. The logical center of my mind recalls that Apple’s only official pronouncement is that the initial run of Macs with Intel Inside will show up some time in the first half of 2006. I’m not a betting man, but I’m willing to consider bets that my emotions will win out, at least this time.

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