Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Macintosh: Intel Inside

August 2005

By Mike Gould

Pigs have flown, Hell is importing mukluks, and I have eaten my hat, crow and all. Macintosh computers, starting in 2006, will run on Intel processors. A deadly hush falls. Somewhere, in the distance, a dog barks faintly...

So What?
As usual, we start off with a little history lesson. Once upon a time, there was a company named Motorola that made computer chips. One of the chips they made was the 68000, a CPU (Central Processing Unit) suitable for home computing. When Steve Jobs first set up the Macintosh computer team back in 1983, they settled on the 68000 as the heart of the Mac, and the rest is history. Being history, it is filled with intrigue, wars, and tales of corporate infighting.

Long history short, Apple went with the Motorola flavor of processing, while the Windows world settled on chips from Intel (and Intel's various competitors, especially AMD). IBM got into the act, teaming up with Motorola to produce Mac chips. These days, most of the CPUs found in modern Macs are made by IBM. This is a delicious irony in that in the early days, IBM was the chief competitor of Apple, before Microsoft assumed that role.

The differences between the flavors of computing are significant; CISC vs RISC, Big-Endian vs Little-Endian, Hocus-Pocus vs Presto-Chango (a technical term). Fascinating details to be sure (to me anyway), but I will be merciful and say merely that never the twain shall meet. Until last month, when Jobs forever changed the course of history by announcing that Apple was going to Intel. This is a twain weck of major proportions to Apple fans, because for years, Apple has been slamming the Intel product as being on the wrong track, technology-wise - a steam engine compared to the bullet-train awesomeness that is the Motorola-IBM chip (the PowerPC).

Now Steve Jobs is the master of the Reality Distortion Field (RDF, and no, I'm not making this up). As a spin doctor, he is the Surgeon General of information adjustment, so it is no surprise he had a plausible reason for all the above: "We really like the PowerPC chips we have now, but looking down the road, we think Intel is going in the same direction we are" (or words to that effect). In other words, "IBM hasn't been cranking up the clock speeds as fast as we like, and they keep failing to deliver enough chips on time, so we're joining the Dark Side of the Force".

This refers to the embarrassing lack of mojo on the Mac logic board. IBM has been unable to deliver CPUs any faster than 2.7 GigaHertz, and those emit so much heat they have to be water-cooled. PCs, on the other hand, passed 3Ghz a year or so ago, even in laptops. Granted, clock speed doesn't tell anywhere near the full story of computer efficiencies, and Macs traditionally do more with their clock cycles than PCs; but it just doesn't look good in the bragging rights department.

How Do They Do That?
More history: for the last several years, Macs have been running an Operating System (OS) called OS X, which is based on a decades-old technology called Unix. Unix runs on Intel chips. So it is no stretch to imagine Apple jiggering things so OS X can run on Intel silicon, and in fact, they have been doing that in secret ever since OS X started development. This was called project Marklar, named after aliens featured in South Park (obvious, right?).

So all along, Jobs has had a secret plan to dump IBM if they couldn't keep up. He made the announcement at a developers conference, as the developers are the ones who will have to re-write all their code so that their programs will run on the new MacTels (as they are now being called). The good news is that this is a relatively easy process: the makers of Mathematica, a seriously non-trivial piece of number-crunching software, reported it only took 2 hours to port their work to Intel.

What it means
Mac fans went through the usual stages: denial ("Good one! That rumor has been floating around on the web forever..."), rage ("That #$%&* Jobs! I just bought a G5 and now it's obsolete!") and acceptance ("Hmmm, Photoshop on a 5.6Ghz MacTel sounds pretty good"). The rest of the mouse users out there thought: "Cool! Now I can run OSX on my Dell!"

Uh, no, you won't be able to run OS X on a Dell or any other non-Apple iron out there. Apple will jigger the juice so that you will only be able to run it on their hardware. They make billions from hardware, and only millions from software, so they're not going to shoot that cash cow. Someone will doubtlessly hack out a way to shoehorn OS X onto a cheaper PC, but it won't run as well or be as stable as the real thing.

Cheaper Macs? Could be, but I doubt it. Macintosh is all about innovation and R & D costs money. Dells are cheap because Dell just makes hardware, it doesn't think up cool new ways to use it, improve it, or extend it.

Windows on a Mac? You can do that already, using emulation software sold by Microsoft (they bought the company that invented it), but it is not as efficient as Win on a PC. But this is the most significant issue here to my mind: there has been no confirmation from Apple about this, but there is no doubt that you will be able to purchase Windows and run it on your MacTel. So now you have a true dual-booting system: Do most of your work in Macintosh where you have no ad-ware, no spy-ware and no viruses (and your Word, Excel and browsers work just fine), and then flip a switch to run those PC programs that haven't been ported to Macintosh (mostly games and banking apps).

I can see that switch now: Dark Side - Mac Side.

More about OS X and Marklar: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mac_OS

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler and digital photographer for the U of M, runs MondoDyne Web Works, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes visitors to his website at www.mondodyne.com.

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