Design Tools Monthly Report: Mac OS X on Intel processors

During Monday's opening keynote address at Apple's Worldwide Developer
Conference (WWDC), Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the third major transition
in Macintosh history: the transition from PowerPC to Intel processors. Below
is our summary of what is happening and what to expect.

This transition will occur over the next two years, with Apple shipping the
first Intel-powered Macs in mid-2006, followed by higher-end Macs in the 12
months after that. Jobs said that the reason for the switch to Intel
processors is that IBM, the provider of PowerPC chips, has been unable to
deliver fast enough G5 PowerPC processors, and has also been unable to
deliver low-power G5 processors that could be used in PowerBooks. You may
remember that two years ago Jobs promised a 3-GHz G5 Power Mac, and we
haven't seen one yet.

Fortunately for everyone, during the past five years that Apple has been
developing Mac OS X, they were also secretly developing a version of Mac OS
X that runs on Intel processors. In fact, Jobs' entire keynote demonstration
was performed on Mac OS X running on a 3.6-GHz Pentium 4 processor.

Macintosh has had two previous major transitions: from Motorola's 680x0
processor to the PowerPC processor in 1994-1996, and from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS
X in 2001-2003. Because of the talent of Apple's programmers, these two
transitions went so smoothly that they are considered unprecedented
successes in the computer industry. The upcoming transition from PowerPC to
Intel should be even smoother, due in part to these two technologies:

1. Version 2.1 of Apple's Xcode programming environment
2. Rosetta

Xcode 2.1:
Most applications for Mac OS X were written using Apple's Xcode software,
and the new version of Xcode displays two checkboxes when compiling an
application: "PowerPC" and "Intel". By checking both, a program is compiled
into a "universal binary" that runs under Mac OS X on both PowerPC and Intel

Apple says that Rosetta is an emulator that allows today's Mac OS X software
to run under Mac OS X on Intel processors with little or no performance hit.
Unlike Classic, which must be launched as a separate environment in order to
run Mac OS 9 applications under Mac OS X, Rosetta exists within Mac OS X,
and runs when necessary without the user necessarily being aware of it.

Because of these two technologies, many developers believe that the
transition to Intel processors will be even easier than Apple's two previous
major transitions (PowerPC and Mac OS X). To prove the point, Apple invited
Wolfram Research, developers of Mathematica software, to visit Apple's
campus last Friday and asked them to bring along the source code for
Mathematica. Mathematica is one of the most complex, gigantic applications
on Mac OS X, and Xcode 2.1 successfully recompiled it into the new universal
binary format in two hours.

Mathematica closely follows Apple's programming guidelines, so the
conversion was quick and easy. Applications that don't strictly follow
Apple's programming guidelines will take longer to adjust and recompile. But
between this demonstration and the existence of Rosetta, Apple believes that
the vast majority of Mac OS X applications will simply work on the new

...Except for Classic. No mention was made of this Mac OS 9 emulation
environment, so we assume that Classic will not be supported, and therefore
you may need to replace your Mac OS 9 applications to use an Intel-based
Mac. (This should be good news for both Quark's and Adobe's revenue stream
from upgrades.)

Jobs was joined onstage by Bruce Chizen, Adobe's CEO, and Roz Ho, the
General Manager of Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU), to assure us
that their applications will be updated to run on the new architecture.
(Some folks are calling the new architecture "MacTel", but we're going to
wait for a better term.)

To assist developers in updating their applications, Apple is offering a
$999 "Developer Transition Kit" that includes a prototype 3.6GHz Pentium 4
Power Mac and preview versions of Apple's software. The kit will ship on
June 20th. In addition, later this year Intel plans to provide Mac versions
of its developer tools: the Intel C/C++ Compiler for Apple, Intel Fortran
Compiler for Apple, Intel Math Kernel Libraries for Apple and Intel
Integrated Performance Primitives for Apple.

(We noticed that Steve Jobs always used "Mac" instead of "Macintosh" and
that Intel's product names include "Apple" instead of "Macintosh", so we
wonder what the future holds for the Macintosh name.)

Besides the question of support for Classic applications, a few other
questions also linger. What about new Apple hardware? None was mentioned,
other than a reference to an Intel-based Mac in "mid-2006". Does that mean
you should wait 12-18 months before buying your next Mac? Jobs said that the
first models will be followed by higher-end models over the following year.
This implies that the first models will be relatively low-end, although we
think the first round may also include new iBooks and PowerBooks. Also, will
the new Macs cost less because Intel's processors cost less? Probably not,
since we think that Apple will want to control the configuration of the
motherboards to keep the build quality up to Apple's design standards.

But for now the question of processors doesn't really matter. Mac OS X will
continue to run on PowerPC processors for the next several years, so when
the cost of upgrading becomes justified by enough of an increase in your
productivity and profitability, it makes sense to buy an upgrade.

You can watch the entire 60-minute keynote address at

Posted: Wed - June 8, 2005 at 11:50 PM