I read a piece at Wired this week that reminded me of something that many of today’s Mac users probably never heard before. June 6, 2016 is the 11th anniversary of Steve Jobs’ original announcement that Macs were switching from the PowerPC to Intel. And to say that Mac users of the time were surprised is probably a huge understatement. Indeed, to some it seemed to be a betrayal.
For years, Apple touted the amazing performance of the PowerPC. Macworld keynotes featured bake-offs demonstrating that a Mac would leave an Intel box in the dust. These were real comparisons, not faked, or at least the ones that I duplicated were real. I remember one year convincing HP to supply a computer to compare its performance to my Power Mac. Using Apple’s benchmarking scripts, which included running a number of rendering processes in Adobe Photoshop, I was able to confirm all or most of Apple’s claims.
Now some would suggest that Apple manipulated the test to favor their gear. No doubt that’s true to some extent, but the tests I ran represented operations any graphic artist might do in Photoshop as a part of their workflow. In almost every case, an Intel Pentium with a clock speed more than twice that of the Power Mac would end up second best.
There’s little doubt that Intel’s sales and marketing people made regular pilgrimages to Apple headquarters to try to earn their business. No doubt Apple got a gander at Intel’s future product roadmap to see the possibilities.
Now in the years before the Intel switch was announced, Apple was secretly building a version of OS X to run on Intel. Just in case. There was also a certain statement from Jobs that Apple was satisfied with the PowerPC roadmap, but was keeping its options open.
There’s little doubt Apple had reason to be concerned. PowerPC development had stalled in the early 2000s. IBM and Motorola couldn’t tame the high-end G5 to run on a notebook. It ran too hot and used too much power. Indeed, some Power Mac G5 towers required liquid cooling to keep them running at safe temperatures. I know mine did. If that coolant ever leaked, your Mac would be toast, and you might have an expensive carpet cleaning bill.
Now Intel was obviously aware of the Pentium’s limitations. High clock speeds, lots of heat to dissipate. So a successor was being developed, the Intel Core series. The first two processors, the Core Solo and Core Duo mobile chips, were slated to ship in January, 2006. Desktop versions arrived that summer.
So during the 2015 WWDC keynote, Steve Jobs brought on Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO at the time, to cement the new deal. Apple planned to start moving Macs to Intel in early 2006, with the entire migration set to conclude by the end of the year. In fact, with the introduction of the Mac Pro that summer, the migration was completed way ahead of schedule.
For Mac users, the switchover was mostly seamless. Some of those early notebook processors could run hot, hot enough that if you put your notebook on your lap barelegged it would get too hot. But further development of cooling systems, and Intel’s efforts to reduce power consumption and heat generation resolved that problem over time.
The first Intel compatible OS was 10.4 Tiger, which was in most respects otherwise identical to the PowerPC version. Except that it ran much faster on an Intel Mac. In order to be able to continue to use your PowerPC apps, Apple released a utility called Rosetta that would launch the first time one of those older apps launched. The Intel chips were so powerful, you’d hardly notice any performance loss.
But moving to Intel had yet another advantage, perhaps the greatest advantage of all, and that was the ability to run Windows as a virtual machine and natively. Both seemed to happen at about the same time. In 2006, Apple released Boot Camp, which allowed you to establish a Windows partition and load Windows on it. The word “Boot” told the tale. You had to restart to use Windows.
The virtual machine, however, is the best alternative for most users. Around the same time the first Boot Camp beta arrived, Parallels released a beta of their Desktop app, which managed multiple operating systems. The final version came out early in 2007. A virtual machine means that you can set up a number of drive-based operating systems, and not just Windows. Even the earliest versions of Parallels Desktop supported Linux and other operating systems.
In the old days, when a PowerPC had to emulate an Intel processor, Windows performance was glacial. I remember trying to write books about Windows on my Mac using one of those emulators, and I’d have to wait long seconds or minutes to do simple things. In contrast, Windows was pretty snappy as a virtual machine. If you didn’t use a graphics heavy app, or attempt to play a game, it seemed about as fast as a native Windows box.
Over time, Parallels and a rival company, VMWare, added accelerated graphics, so simple games would work just fine. The power-user games for which you paid a bundle on a Windows box to run won’t do so well on a virtual machine. But for most purposes, using Windows on a Mac works just fine. I’ve done it for 10 years and haven’t encountered any serious problems beyond the glitches that are part and parcel of Windows.
Today, the performance difference between a Mac and a PC is usually not significant, except for those costly Windows gaming boxes with high-end graphics hardware. Had Apple not gone Intel when it did, the Mac platform might have seriously suffered over the years. PowerPC development was focused on embedded systems, not on Macs, and Apple’s business wasn’t large enough to encourage continued improvement of desktop chips.
You might not even have a Mac platform in 2016 had Steve Jobs and crew not made the decision to engage in the second processor switch in the company’s history. The first, from the Motorola 680×0 processors to the PowerPC, occurred in 1994.
Some suggest Apple’s next processor transition on the Mac is to AMD. But if that were to happen — and the potential is certainly there — what about Windows compatibility? Would Apple be able to build sort sort of hardware emulator that would provide good performance and compatibility for Windows and Intel apps? Is the Mac business even large enough to fund that level of development?
In any case, Mac users have to be glad the Intel transition happened when it did. It really helped the Mac live long and prosper.