A few months back on my site I wrote about Apple’s shift to USB2 with the iPod, and the implications of this move for Mac users. But even more important than the impact it would have on current and future Mac users was the signaling of a new era of thinking at Apple computer. It was the first time Apple had made a shift toward an inferior technology and away from a superior one, based almost soley on the popularity of the more prominant technology and the money such a move would save.
It has happened again.
By now everyone has heard the news, and I’m not going to get too far into whether Apple transitioning to Intel will drive away its users or what the eventual impact on the Mac world will be. I am confident Apple will pull off the transition; it has done it before and if anything, this time will be easier than its transitions in the past.
Of course there are the varied and predictable reactions from the Mac crowd: Some cry foul, others cheer, others are so shocked they have yet to speak. Those Mac users swearing off the purchase of future Intel-powered Macs are a bit foolish; I seriously doubt any could make a real case for one processor type over another. x86 processors may be hacked out of twenty-year-old tech, but they do work- and rather well, seeing how much of the world is powered by them. We’re also living in a time where software is becoming increasingly less processor-dependent, and technology will continue in this direction for the foreseeable future. I predict most current Mac users will accept that Macs will continue being Macs, regardless of the CPU humming along inside of them.
What I find more interesting than the specifics of the hardware architecture transition is the trend this switch alludes to. Apple has again moved to a more popular platform, at the cost of leaving behind a better one. This time the switch was not for purely bottom-line reasons; it is true that the G5 has hit a Ghz wall, and it seems that IBM is much happier building large quantities of chips for the next generation consoles than small batches for use in Macs. Apple had to find another source of processors, and switching architectures was a possibility thanks to Mac OS X. But the PowerPC (admittingly with a stupid name) is a much newer architecture, one with more room for growth than the x86. So while x86 is a better choice in the short term (particularly for notebooks and low-energy uses), PowerPC chips may have a brighter future, if it is seen through and realized. But this requires a lot of R&D dollars that may or may not be available.
Most of the sting from today’s keynote announcement comes from the years of Intel bashing that has been taking place in the Mac world. Years and years of Apple marketing have made us despise a chip because it wasn’t as good as what we had. CISC? Ha! So last decade. Over here we have 64 bits and Altivec and cool metal cases. RISC, baby! It’s where it’s at! And then, all of a sudden, what the other side has is what we have, and to a lot of Mac users it feels like getting cheated on.
In retrospect I’m not all that surprised about the choice of Intel, although at first I was perplexed over why they were chosen over other any other option, most notably AMD. But then I thought about Apple, what it represents, and how its recent decisions have been motivated. If Apple is anything, it is a marketing machine (becoming stronger by the minute), and Intel has a lot more mindshare in non-geek circles than AMD. If the eventual goal of Apple is to take back part of the desktop computer market, or, more likely, become the leader in the next one (media distribution anyone?), it is going to need every ounce of brand awareness and reputation it has. Intel might be selling chips to Apple that from a technological point of view they had hopes to have already phased out, but to a new Mac user, Intel means proven technology. (I’m not going to cry as long as I can still run Photoshop and other design software while I’m waiting on it’s release for Linux.)
Finally ending the speed war is also a nice side affect of this move. I’m not complaining about no longer having to justify the purchase of a computer that has outdated tech before it is even brought home (and I’m not talking about Ghz only here, more about PCI-Express, memory, bus speeds, etc.) Some people are going to be pissed about an Intel CPU being a part of their next Mac, but how many of these users have written a line of assembly code or directly used their processor? How many do anything that is even affected by the type of CPU they are currently using? What we witnessed today was Apple making a conscious decision to be less idealistic and more business savvy. In the long run it will be a good thing for Apple, and in theory a good thing for its users. We’ll have to wait and see.
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