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  • Macs on Intel: The 80% Factor

    June 8th, 2006

    Just think about it: A year ago, Steve Jobs promised that Macs would switch to Intel before the end of 2007. To think that this daunting process is nearly all done 18 months early. Right now, in case you tuned in late, everything but the Power Mac and Xserve have been upgraded, and since Intel’s new desktop chips are due beginning next month, it’s reasonable to expect that upgrade will be completed by fall with few serious complications.

    But it’s a good time to look back at what Apple has wrought, particularly in light of the mixed reaction to its Intel switch. Today, it seems that it was the only logical choice, but I’m sure some of you wondered whether Jobs was pilling some sort of scam with such a vast change in direction. No doubt developers felt the shock and awe, even if a few had an inkling of what was coming. Here they’d spent years moving their work to Mac OS X, fine-tuning performance, dealing with the problems occasioned by the regular stream of updates, and now they had to do it all over again.

    Of course, Jobs told thousands of developers who attended last year’s WWDC how easy it would be to switch apps to Universal, to run on both PowerPC and Intel chips. Just click a checkbox, make a few tweaks, and that would be all that was required for most, though a few might have to work harder. Of course, that’s not much better than the spin Apple put on the alleged ease of converting software from Classic to Mac OS X, but in the real world, the process wasn’t near as daunting as some feared.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t true for everyone, and not every Universal application is as efficient as it should be. Worse, developers who didn’t use Apple’s Xcode environment to begin with must first import their code and clean it up. When you have sprawling productivity applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word undergoing this transformation, it’s no surprise that the projects may take months or years to complete. It also requires a large investment to pay the salaries of the employees who are doing the work, so it makes sense that the funds have to be recouped somehow. So you just know that some of these cherished Universal versions will carry a standard upgrade price tag.

    The only hope is that the new versions will contain a sufficient number of new features to justify the money. I do not want to see any repetition of what Microsoft and Quark pulled with their first Mac OS X upgrades, which was to deliver native versions at the full upgrade price with a paucity of new features. If they try that scheme again, I would rather stick with the existing versions and let someone else pay for the beta testing.

    As to Apple, I think it’s done a great job. Yes, I understand there were some issues with the first shipments of the MacBook Pro. I’ve heard of early battery failures, excessive heat and possibly other failures. The latest problem involves the MacBook, where Apple’s factories put a plastic seal on the top cooling vents to keep dust from creeping in. If you don’t remove the seal, it gets too hot.

    Now, whenever I unpack a new Apple product, I spend a little time going through the nooks and crannies and the external fittings, such as power adapters, to make sure all the plastic is removed. So there’s a little common sense here as well, and maybe some folks, anxious to put their new note-books to use, have forgotten to check things carefully before pushing the power button to see what happens.

    Another issue, which is something we’re going to have to live with, and that is that the word “laptop” is no longer in Apple’s lexicon. They are telling us that these things can run hot, because of the powerful processors inside, and you just have to get accustomed to it. On the other hand, lots of Apple lap — make that note-books — have tended to be a little too warm for knee placement, so this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

    In fact, I’m rather pleased with the way this processor switch has gone. Rosetta emulation compatibility is quote good, and if you don’t expect miracles, performance should be acceptable for all but power users in most cases. Moreover, I’m particularly impressed with how Mac OS X sings and dances on an Intel chip, as if it were meant to reside on that platform.

    Best of all, don’t forget that this is only the beginning. As Intel rolls out its higher-performing chips over the next few months, Apple will, I expect, be quick to put them into production. Already, preliminary reports are showing that AMD’s highly-touted advantage in high-end desktop processors will be short-lived. So, despite some skepticism, it does appear that Apple’s pact with Intel was not a pact with the devil. It
    was exactly the right move, at exactly the right time.

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