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The 10.6 Report: Time for Apple to Drop PowerPC Support?

Before I get started with this commentary, let me assure you that I never take any of my predictions seriously. Yet it seems as if The Night Owl caught a wave with one particular article, and now other sites, including the standard rumor sources, are getting into the act.

So what am I talking about?

Well, on the heels of my admittedly casual prediction, recently, that we might learn preliminary details of Mac OS 10.6 at the WWDC next week, comes a claim that it will not support Macs with PowerPC chips.

Let’s, for the moment, consider the impact of this is true. You see, Intel-based Macs only went on sale in 2006, and the last conversions took place that summer, with the release of the Mac Pro. So if this particular rumor is to be taken seriously, and 10.6 appears some time next year, Apple would abandon support for many Macs that are barely more than three years old. That is certainly not in keeping with their previous approach on dealing with legacy hardware.

From Apple’s standpoint, this move could make a whole lot of sense, despite the pain they’ll be inflicting on many of you. Being able to strip PowerPC code from the system binaries means that upgrade files will be a whole lot smaller, and that would be a boon for those of you suffering lengthy downloads for the stuff that regularly shows up in your Software Update app. It would also mean simpler quality control testing, since only a single processor architecture need to evaluated for compatibility, resulting in far fewer complications and unexpected bugs.

Such a move would, of course, encourage third-party developers to get with the program and begin to offer more and more of their products as Intel-only, for the very same reasons. It would also make it easier for them to optimize cross-platform code bases, and thus such things as games would work more efficiently on Macs. Then again, a lot of the latter is because those games were originally designed for Microsoft’s DirectX graphics system, and they still have to be ported to OpenGL. Call it half a loaf.

From a practical business standpoint, it’s also true that sales of Intel-based Macs are off the charts, and the user base will be noticeably larger than PowerPC Macs at the end of that possible two-year gap between Leopard and its successor. This may indeed be a factor that’s weighing on the minds of Apple’s development and marketing teams, but you have to wonder whether this might just be far too draconian a measure.

Understand there is no confirmation about Apple’s plans for 10.6, or even if it will be showcased, however briefly, at the forthcoming WWDC. Just because a number of sites are raising that possibility, and the additional prospects that Apple will abandon support for the PowerPC, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

You see, I feel that action would be premature, even if 10.6 arrived in 2010. I tend to think that 10.7 would be a better operating system to mark the final nail in the coffin for PowerPC. That would take us to 2011 or 2012, and that would be more than enough time for this to happen.

If I were to venture a guess, I’d tell you I see little reason for 10.6 not to have the very same system requirements as Leopard. That means a G4 with an 867MHz processor or better. That, to me, is a perfectly sensible line of demarcation, because it would allow Macs from the early part of this century to survive to the end of the decade without having to be replaced.

This is not to say you shouldn’t get an Intel-based Mac at the earliest opportunity. Regardless of what Apple does, it’s a sure thing more and more application developers will abandon the Universal code base and embrace Intel-only. Adobe has done that with some of its creative applications already, and there are scattered apps from other companies that have the very same limitation.

Since Microsoft Office 2008 appears to suffer somewhat on a PowerPC, I dare say that Office 2010, or whatever it will be called, will make the full exclusive transition to Intel. That will also ease the process to deliver a restored Visual Basic for Applications, since Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit won’t have to work quite so hard when it only has a single processor platform to support.

Sure, the Universal feature in Apple’s Xcode was supposed to be able to simplify that dual-processor paradigm, but it still means more work optimizing an application’s code base. For a sprawling suite, such as the various Office components, that entaila an awful lot of work, and you can understand if the PowerPC wasn’t given full attention.

Regardless of how this all plays out, going to Intel is not quite as expensive as you might think. Believe it or not, the lowly Mac mini is actually more powerful than any Power Mac, other than the higher-end G5’s, and those with heavy-duty graphic cards. Should Apple accept the suggestion from me, Dan Frakes of Macworld, and Daniel Knight, of LowEndMac, to build a mid-priced “headless” iMac, the upgrade dilemma would be eased considerably.

I know there are still millions upon millions of PowerPC Macs in regular use in homes and businesses. I think Apple would be making a monumental mistake to abandon them too quickly. In fact, I think there would be lots and lots of protests if 10.6 did just that.

But I am still feeling more confident in my prediction about 10.6’s unveiling at WWDC 2008, and that’s at least one positive development — at least for me.