Thoughts on Apple and the big Intel announcement

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday June 30 @ 9:39 am

Not so much from an airport lounge as a post from 35,000 feet. Yep, I’m writing this from the comfort of two seats on a British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Nice. I’m heading over there for a Unisys conference on Unix mugration.

It has certainly been a busy couple of weeks in the world of technology.

First up, the news I know has echoed around the web for a while now, that Apple is to begin the process of moving its hardware to Intel-based processors. The exact details remain vague, in true Apple style, but it is safe to say that the desktop units will shift first to the Pentium 4 in some form or another (expect to see single processor and some kind of multi-processor/multi-core offering eventually).

The transition process will take two years, and I expect the Power Mac towers to be the first to switch, simply because they will be the easiest to refresh, being a straightforward case design, though some analysts suggest that it will be the iMac and Mac Mini that will transition first.

Mac traditionalists are mixed on the news – some think it is great, realising that the deal will allow Apple to release new models more frequently, deliver more processing power for the money, offer lower-priced entry-level models and sort out the challenge of woefully underpowered, overly hot laptops. Other Mac devotees are disgusted by the move, seeing this as an eventual move to commoditised hardware, and MacOS running on any old piece of x86 junk. Thankfully, this is far from the truth.

While Windows will happily run on the developer units that began landing on doorsteps this past weekend, the Intel build of MacOS will still only run on ‘Macified’ systems. That means motherboards that have either a specific Apple BIOS build, or the Mac boot ROM we are more used to (exactly which will be used we don’t know – the dev units have a Apple-specific BIOS build).

One thing I can’t stress enough is that the dev units do not represent a retail product – these things really have been cobbled together in a hurry to allow developers to get going on the process of creating x86/PPC universal binaries ahead of the retail launch of the first Intel-based Mac (ensuring that there is at least something on the software shelves that will run natively on the Intel box other than the OS itself). This is why Apple will be taking the dev units back in December 2006 – making the $999 cost of the developer units a steep rental charge rather than a purchase fee.

Personally I can’t wait for the Intel-based Macs to appear – I really do believe that this could be the turning point for the platform – more power, lower component prices, combined with what should be one of the most painless transition processes ever, thanks to the concept of universal binaries (code that will execute natively on either platform) and some very funky transparent emulation code called Rosetta, which will enable PPC code to run on Intel boxes at about 80% of original speed, and completely invisible to the user – not bad at all.

Then there is the news that AMD are suing Intel on anti-trust grounds. Well the truce had to end some time. As a long-time AMD fan, I am of course backing the Athlon boys to get the win, after all, they do make the better processors.

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