To many of you, a database program is boring. But it’s still eminently useful for loads of tasks that range from keeping a mailing list to setting up extensive customer records or even collections of household recipes. Well, I no longer use Apple’s database app, now called Filemaker Pro, but it was interesting to recall its history on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE. Our first guest, Peter Cohen, Mac Managing Editor for iMore, covered a number of topics, including FileMaker Pro’s 30th anniversary.
That segment brought back memories. I first bought the app in 1989 when setting up a new Mac system for a home office. Then it was known as Claris FileMaker, and, yes, I used it for the mailing list of a small magazine I was publishing at the time. Well, the magazine went belly up a couple of years later, and I found I had little need for FileMaker after that, except to help clients who needed to get it running.
During the episode, Peter also talked about the curious saga of MacKeeper, which advertises itself as an app that enhances OS X, the ongoing problems with OS X Yosemite, speculation about the next Apple TV and cable cord-cutting.
Now some of you know that, some years ago and under its original ownership, I did accept advertising from MacKeeper on the radio show. Having learned more about the apps shortcomings and the publisher’s questionable marketing methods, I realize that move was a mistake that I shall not repeat.
You’ll also heard from Kirk McElhearn, also known as Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” who recounted his experiences in setting up and using his new Apple Watch. He also discussed suggestions that Apple may want to consider rebranding OS X in 2016, when iOS 10 is expected to appear. What about returning to Mac OS?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Ronald Regehr returns for a freewheeling look at many subjects including the recent so-called “Roswell Slides” fiasco where we will address how this scenario may be emblematic of problems inherent in this wild west field of pseudo-scientific inquiry. Ron is ready to publish “Another Damn Book About Roswell,” which contains many tantalizing facts and little-known head-scratchers associated with the world’s most famous, over-sensationalized UFO case. Ron spearheaded an analytical process targeting the “Ramey memo,” held in the hand of General Ramey at the infamous July, 1947 Ft. Worth, TX press conference where the alleged Roswell weather balloon debris was shown to reporters. Regehr is a retired aerospace engineer with 36 years experience at Douglas Aircraft and Aerojet Electro Systems working in space and space surveillance systems.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! We’ve got swag! We’re taking orders direct from our Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
Although the news had been predicted by mainstream news organizations, the announcement that Apple would be moving Macs to Intel processors at the 2005 WWDC came as a shock. For years, Apple had been touting the superior performance of the PowerPC chips, so why the turnaround? Was Apple betraying Mac users?
The truth was straightforward and logical. For years, Apple had been claiming that the PowerPC could easily trounce a Pentium PC with a far higher clock speed. That was certainly true, and Apple regularly conducted bake-offs showing how a Mac would leave Intel gear in the dust.
To be sure, some doubted Apple’s claims. They must have cooked the books, or targeted very limited benchmarks where the PowerPC’s performance shined. In fact, I remember requesting Apple’s test methodology at the time, and they employed some canned Photoshop routines as part of the process. In every case where I tested a Mac against a PC, Apple’s results were pretty much confirmed.
Unfortunately Apple ended up as the only PC maker using chips from Freescale Semiconductor and IBM. While the G5 was touted as a next generation processor with loads of potential — and it was certainly powerful enough — it also had prodigious cooling requirements. I remember owning a Power Mac G5, the forerunner of the original Mac Pro, equipped with liquid cooling. That, and multiple fans carefully distributing air around the hot parts, kept the computer running reliably. If the coolant ever leaked, however, you were left with a doorstop.
Hopes for a G5-based PowerBook never came to pass. The chip was never tamed for use in such close quarters and keep it from running too hot, not to mention providing satisfactory battery life.
But Apple didn’t go Pentium. It was the promise of the Intel Core chips, which debuted in January 2006, which presented Apple with a processor roadmap that would be a suitable replacement for the PowerPC. Indeed, during the WWDC keynote the previous June, Jobs revealed that Apple had been simultaneously developing both PowerPC and Intel versions of OS X for several years. He even provided the satellite photos, although rumors of such a project had already been circulating among Mac rumor sites.
Jobs’ original promise was that the transition to Intel would be completed by the end of the following year. The first Intel version of OS X was 10.4 Tiger. To give developers time to migrate their apps to the new processor architecture, Apple incorporated an emulation utility, Rosetta, which allowed PowerPC apps to run at a decent clip. Rosetta was finally discontinued as of OS 10.7 Lion, and some Mac users resented the move since some apps never made the Intel transition.
The original Intel Macs introduced in early 2006 included the first generations of the MacBook and MacBook Pro. They ran plenty fast, but sometimes ran hot. Some users ceased using the word laptop and instead switched to calling them note-books because these computers weren’t so comfortable on your bare legs. As the Intel Core chips became cooler and more efficient, such problems were slowly reduced.
One important side benefit of using Intel parts was to allow a Mac to run Windows at a pretty good clip with a virtual machine. I recall, in the spring of 2006, beta testing the first version of Parallels Desktop for Mac, an app that’s still going strong in 2015. Apple also released the first beta of Boot Camp, which allowed you to set aside a partition on your Mac’s drive to run Windows natively. So a Mac became a two-platform computer, thus making it much easier for people to switch from Microsoft’s OS.
Sure, you could use a PC emulator on a PowerPC Mac, but it was extremely slow; make that dreadful. Despite promises of satisfactory performance, simple things, such as launching an app and saving a document, took minutes to complete. It worked, but only as a last resort. True, I did write some Windows books with such apps as Soft PC or Virtual PC. But it was done mostly to avoid having to buy a PC. Curiously, the latter’s technology was later acquired by Microsoft to allow a Windows developer to emulate different versions of Windows on a PC for testing.
Now by the summer of 2006, with the release of the Mac Pro, Apple’s Intel migration was complete, months ahead of schedule. While developers certainly had to work hard to build native versions of their apps, for most customers, it was a non-issue. Your new Mac was, aside from minor exterior changes, almost identical to a PowerPC Mac when it came to day-to-day use. Compatibility issues weren’t altogether serious. Except for the need of some Mac users to continue to run PowerPC apps, the migration was mostly a non-issue. Indeed, it does appear that the price of Macs was actually reduced because of the cost efficiencies of using industry standard parts.
But this doesn’t mean Intel’s roadmap has always been realized as promised. The current Broadwell chips are months late. They were expected to appear last fall, and only recently did Apple receive the parts needed to refresh the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. With reports that supplies of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display are drying up, it may be that Apple will make the Broadwell migration on its high-end note-books in the next few weeks. The appropriate Intel chips are expected to be available in quantity by July, but it’s always possible Apple grabbed some of the first supplies for their own use. It wouldn’t be the first time.
While Intel’s processors have been built on smaller dies, and power usage is more efficient, actual performance improvements from year to year have been very incremental. So a five-year-old Mac, while slower in benchmarks, can still hold its own. You can no longer expect large double-digit performance boosts from year to year. But it’s probably also true that most computers — Mac and PC — are pretty much fast enough for most users.
The very gradual improvements, however, have generated speculation that Apple is poised to make yet another processor migration, this one to Apple’s own variants on ARM technology. The A8 and A8x chips offer performance that would have been considered quite acceptable in a Mac of five years back. Remember, too, that they are designed to run at very low power to allow for decent battery life on a smartphone and tablet. What if they were scaled up for a traditional note-book or desktop computer?
That, and advancements in mobile graphics, make it seem that Apple could, if they wanted, ultimately design their own ARM chips that would be perfectly suited for Macs. Maybe not yet, or maybe first for a MacBook Air or MacBook, but is it at all possible that an A-series processor may some day give Intel iron a run for its money?
Even if that was possible, would it make sense for Apple?
For one thing, Apple is no doubt fully aware of Intel’s long-term processor roadmap, years out, so they know what they are giving up if they make another processor switch. There are also serious questions whether it’s all worthwhile. For one thing, Macs are produced in far lower quantities than iPhones, and even iPads despite falling sales, so does it make any sense to build such chips in the first place?
Even if developers had an easy time to move their apps to the new platform, and Apple is skilled at providing tools to build Intel and ARM software, what about the tens of thousands of Mac apps that are optimized for Intel? No doubt Apple would have to create yet another emulation scheme. I had considered whether harnessing the power of Apple’s Metal graphics technology would be a way to deliver Intel emulation with acceptable performance.
But I’m just shooting in the dark here. I have no inside information on whether Apple is planning such a move, or whether it’ll even be feasible.
At the same time, I have little doubt Apple is evaluating a number of Mac alternatives deep inside their development labs. ARM-based Macs are probably being tested even now for the same reason that the company built an Intel-based version of OS X when the PowerPC was king. They need alternatives in case the existing suppliers aren’t delivering the goods. Perhaps sampling of such hardware in the supply chain may fuel occasional rumors of a possible processor switch.
All this doesn’t mean it’ll never happen. One might have thought that the 2015 MacBook would have been the ideal showpiece for an ARM-based Mac processor. But Apple chose Intel’s Core M instead, and that’s a first generation product. Perhaps the long-range plan is more encouraging. Or maybe it was the most practical alternative for now.
One thing is sure: With Apple nothing is forever, so a Mac with an A-something chip might arrive someday. But I don’t expect to see it happen soon.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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