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Intel, WTF?
by Gordon Hundley at 17:49 13/06/05 (Blogs::Gordon)
Apple's shift to Intel doesn't appear to make any sense.
When I first started hearing about the rumors of an Apple shift to Intel, I rationalised it as the usual x86 platform naming confusion. When people talk about Intel processors, they often mean x86 architecture, and I figured that somebody had simply introduced noise in the Chinese whispers.

Migrating from PowerPC to x86 has strong market merits, particularly with the current strength of AMD products. Not only could Apple use an Athlon 64 mobile chipset in future Powerbooks, it could gain a high speed dual-core 64 bit processor for its cutting edge workstations and rack servers. Imagine how surprised I was when Jobs got up on stage and basked in the glow of an "Intel Inside" logo.

Clearly, Apple isn't going to allow us to run their software on grey box systems. Talented nerds may make it possible, but that isn't going to be supported, encouraged or possibly even go unpunished. So we won't be getting any MacOS love for AMD hardware. With the Apple site still proclaiming that its G5 PowerMac systems are faster in real-world performance than Intel offerings, there is bound to be very real confusion in the Apple market.

Various pundits have suggested that the Apple announcement fits the Intel timetable for newer EM64T based processors in late 2006 to replace the PowerMac. That could be correct, and certainly existing mobile chips from Intel would allow for an earlier refresh in the Mac Mini and Powerbook lines with more powerful Intel hardware, but it creates a confusing market for many months that is presumably bleeding sales. The really big question has to be why Apple would sink their own ship by announcing plans to change processor achitecture so far in the future (in tech terms).

Jobs has stated that the timing of the announcement was based on providing enough time for application developers to get their software ported. Something smells funky here. Did Jobs not also show a version of Mathematica running on an Intel version of Tiger to demonstrate how quickly applications could be ported? Are application developers not usually courted in secret under the usual NDAs when market threatening changes have to be communicated?

There is something SO BIG around the corner that Jobs has decided its worth ruining his current hardware sales for a year. That has to be one or both of two things in my opinion. Either we are going to see the introduction of Itanium Personal, or Jobs is going to the board of Intel in a stock swap agreement. The July 19 Q2 Intel earnings report webcast might be worth looking in on.

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Intel, WTF? Gordon Hundley - 17:49 13/06/05
Re: Intel, WTF? David Crowson - 17:57 13/06/05
Interesting analysis (as usual) Gordon,

and how the devil are you, and where the devil are you ;-p

An address/phone no. might be useful..


Re: Intel, WTF? Bruce Ure - 18:12 13/06/05

I can't be the only one to find this whole thing terribly funny, though, can I? Ironically, I mean -- in that it's one of the Mac evangelists' worst nightmares.

Me, I couldn't give a toss whose chipset my OS runs on (indeed recent and expensive attempts to convert myself to a Maccie reveal that actually I couldn't give much of a toss which OS it is either), but there's a big pride element amongst the fiercely loyal / hardcore Maccies, and this will hit them hard. I expect many will feel an element of betrayal, about which I can empathise.


Re: Intel, WTF? Simon - 21:23 13/06/05
It's the environment, not the chipset, that's crucial.

Bruce is right - people shouldn't care what chip is in their machine, what they want is familiarity and all their stuff where they left it.

What Jobs is doing is making a radical change at the optimal time - Longhorn is still n years away, Linux isn't really maturing as a desktop OS - so now's the time to expend efforts creating a translation layer that will let OS X run on both big and little-endian systems.

The "Univeral Binary" that's being talked about - PPC and x86 binary in one 'app' (packaged directory tree, really) is fundamental along with Rosetta.

Support for PowerPC isn't going to somehow magically disappear as a result of this move to Intel, I think the endgame is to make OS X chipset agnostic.


Re: Intel, WTF? Gordon Hundley - 22:21 13/06/05
I agree that it is not important what the underlying hardware is, provided that it is adequate for the software, and that the desired software is supported on the combination of OS and architecture. Microsoft's Windows OS is currently available on a number of hardware platforms, including both x86 and Itanium.

The primary issue is not that the change is being made now, nor even that the target appears not to be optimal from a technology standpoint, but that it is being openly disclosed. The history of the computer industry is littered with the corpses of companies that said too much too soon and killed their existing portfolio. In that regard, I refuse to believe that Jobs is such an imbecile, and choose instead to posit that there are real strategic reasons for the timing of the announcement.

Apple have already stated that Intel chips will replace PowerPC chips. They have already stated that you won't be able to run MacOS on non-Apple grey box computers. They have already stated that they don't care if you run Windows on an Apple computer. The very speculation that the final target is x86 is just that, fueled by the knowledge that there is an existing MacOS port to that platform, and that developers now have access to an IA-32 x86 cross-compiler (along with big warnings stating that nothing is fixed in stone).

We've been through this on the Mac platform before, with the transition from 68K to PowerPC, and we had 'Fat binaries' for a time. Just as will be the case this time, that was a limited time offer, and its days have passed. Modern Apple software does not run on an MC68K Mac. Future Apple software will not run on a PowerPC Mac. It won't happen overnight - there's a few years left in the systems yet - but it will happen. The market desire for PowerPC Macs left millions of dollars of obsolete Apple inventory unsold in the channel. With the more streamlined 'just in time' manufacturing Apple currently uses, there will be much less inventory to write off, but sales will suffer, and they'll suffer badly.

Microsoft recently got into bed with IBM, selecting PowerPC as the platform for Xbox 360, and cutting Intel out of future platform sales. They also published a version of Windows XP that runs 64 bit clean on non-Itanium hardware, ensuring that the multi billion dollar Itanium platform is under further jeopardy. Although Itanium in its original form is very likely buried, even inside Intel, much of its technology will find its way into successors of EM64T. That there could be an alliance of Intel, Apple and HP pushing that technology as a MacOS platform should be viewed with some concern by both IBM and Microsoft.

Despite the very public announcement, clearly some cards are being carefully held close to the chest. Were that not the case it's unlikely that Jobs would have damaged the sales channel so badly and so early in a migration cycle.

Re: Intel, WTF? Steve - 23:39 13/06/05
I don't have much to add to what Gordon and Simon have said, except that as a Mac OSX developer myself, the Intel switch was obviously going to require devs seeded with cross compilers at some point and in sufficient time to allow major corporations to be able to ship universal binaries out of the box in their next releases. And that seed was never going to be sufficiently private that the MacIntel plan would stay under wraps for long. For MacIntel to work, there has to be native apps that will offset the undoubted performance impact of the Rosetta layer.

That said, compiling existing Cocoa Mac OSX apps for Intel is likely to be a piece of piss for most of them. Vienna 2.0 compiled with nothing more than a bunch of compiler warnings brought about by the switch to GCC 4.0. I don't know if it will actually run as I've no way of finding out for a while but I'm pretty optimistic. There's a category of code that will need revisions but they're limited to those that assume byte ordering, AltiVec, Preference plugins and assembler stuff to name but a few.

Perhaps there's more interesting stuff coming, possibly at the Paris Expo. Possibly significant price reductions on existing hardware. But I'm also confident that PPC machines have years of life left in them. (But given my financial situation and the developer necessity of such an approach, I'll probably wait and buy a MacIntel box as my next Apple PC.)

Re: Intel, WTF? Gordon Hundley - 08:03 14/02/06
Well, Intel were aggressive with delivery of the new chips. I guess this means we'll see the new desktop chips before the year end. Blimey.

Might as well follow on here - I bought a G5 and a flat panel, a monitor arm, and some wireless bits to replace my laptop shortly after I posted this. My chair looks like mission control, but its more ergonomic and the old carpel tunnel is a bad memory, at least for now.

A couple of days later, I found myself walking out of my job - either I subjected myself to some intrusive personal questions with a third party HR company or I would be suspended without pay for insubordination, they said. So, I quit.

The following six months were a trifle rough, and the credit cards are bloody well used. I'm working again now, but for my sins its back to ISP land (only this one's a tad different to CIX in a couple of ways). Could be worse - I get to work at home and use this lovely computer, and hell, I'm learning things instead of stagnating for the first time in several years.

And if folks want to contact me... ping me at mac.com and I'll forward the rest of the details. Hope you're all well!


Re: Intel, WTF? Simon - 09:18 14/02/06
Hey Gordon, nice to have you back.

You got iChat video conferencing facilities yet? If you do, stick freewheelin@mac.com into your buddy list. NB: that's just an iChat account, my email is the same as it always was.


Re: Intel, WTF? Gordon Hundley - 06:16 15/02/06
Nope, I'm regularly on iChat, but without camera. My gadget wants list is a little on the large side at the moment.
Re: Intel, WTF? Simon - 09:22 15/02/06
We set up Kris' folks with an iMac and iChat when we were in Florida in January, and it works pretty well.

I find text chat too staccato generally.