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Is It Time to Dump Your PowerPC Mac?

I remember when the first PowerPC-based Mac came out in 1994. Despite the promise of greatly-increased performance, my initial encounter was a huge let-down, mostly because there wasn’t a lot of software supporting the new processor. So just about everything, including large portions of the Mac OS, ran in 68K emulation, where performance was reduced by two processor generations, so to speak.

That meant that you’d get performance in line with a 68030 Motorola processor, the one that preceded the 68040 that appeared in the Centris and Quadra series prior to the PowerPC’s introduction.

It took several years before emulation became faster than the real thing, and most software was coded to run native on the new chips. It too another dozen years for Apple to cast its lot with Intel.

The first Intel-based Macs appeared in early 2006 (the transition was announced the previous year), and the final stage of the migration, in the form of the Mac Pro, appeared that summer.

Yet it appears that Apple is rushing to put its older hardware out to pasture, if the reported system requirements of Mac OS 10.6, better known as Snow Leopard, are correct. A screenshot purportedly showing installation instructions of the preview edition handed out to developers under confidentiality agreements (which some, alas, don’t bother to obey) specifies Intel only.

Now to be fair to PowerPC users, who haven’t put up their petitions of protest so far — at least none that I know about — Snow Leopard won’t have a lot in the way of spiffy new features. Yes, there will be native support for Microsoft Exchange 2007. But if you can live without that, consider that most of the enhancements are most effective on Intel-based models, particularly better support for Macs with multicore processors. In addition, more of the processing chores will be offloaded to the graphics chip, which will also help make your Mac run much faster.

Apple is also promising to reduce Snow Leopard’s disk space footprint. The fastest route to that is simply to remove a large portion of the code, which can be easily accomplished by ending support for the G4 and the G5. I suppose Apple is also going to look for other ways to remove the bloat, but certainly supporting fewer models is apparently job one.

If you own a PowerPC, though, be patient. It’s not as if you have to choose between feeding your car’s diet of high-priced fuel just yet. Leopard will continue to receive regular maintenance and security updates, and Snow Leopard is still “about” a year away. it could even take longer, perhaps as late as Macworld 2010, which would make those PowerPC-based Macs nearly four years old at best, and that’s as good a time as any to consider an upgrade to a newer, speedier model regardless of the state of affairs.

Even if Mac OS 10.6 gets here earlier, I doubt that Apple is going to confer end of life status on 10.5, not with a user base in the tens of millions, many of whom will have no more operating system upgrade options.

In fact, until 10.7 comes around, it is quite possible that both Leopard and Snow Leopard will continue to coexist, and the next reference operating system upgrade will probably come late in 2010, if then. Just how far back should Apple retain support?

As to software publishers, there’s no incentive for most of them to stop building Universal applications. If Apple is to be believed, a developer doesn’t have to do a tremendous amount of work to support two processor platforms, although I can imagine that testing and optimization will still be fairly substantial portions of their workload.

However, publishers will eventually find reasons to abandon Universal, claiming, perhaps, that they can deliver better applications quicker if they code strictly for Intel. Adobe has already begun to do this sort of thing with some of their stuff, such as the new Mac version of Premiere, their video editing application. But Adobe apparently also uses its own development tools, so they may find it easier or at least more convenient not to have to support PowerPC with some of their newest products.

However, most of Adobe’s Creative Suite, which has a long history on the PowerPC, won’t abandon that chipset any time soon. I expect the same holds true for a fairly large number of products out there. The lone exception is games, where you’re lucky to get a Mac version, so if it must be Intel-only, that’s the way it is.

Before you blame Apple for being too quick on the trigger, take a long look at the other side of the tracks. Windows Vista is a notorious memory and processor hog. If your PC is more than a year or two old, you may be able to install Vista, but your computer’s former performance level will drop considerably. This is one large reason why Vista didn’t do so well when it comes to upgrade sales. The vast, vast majority of those tens of millions of sales that Microsoft rings up are due to OEM licenses to PC makers, who loaded it on their new hardware.

Even then, far too many Windows users are asking the manufacturers to downgrade them to XP, and they continue to beg Microsoft to keep the other OS on sale.

I suppose I should feel sorry for some of you who just don’t have enough money now to consider buying a new Mac. But that’s a decision you don’t have to make just yet if you have other priorities. When the time does arrive, maybe Apple will continue to have some highly affordable options that won’t break your budget, perhaps in the form of the Mac mini or a hoped-for successor.

Meantime, hold the petitions. When it comes to Apple, they won’t change a thing.