For the past few years Apple has been telling us, their dedicated users, that 64-bit is the future. They’ve given us the 64-bit G5 processor and have consistently mentioned the 64-bit-ness of the Mac OS. And we, the consumers, have had little reason to question this; after all, 64 is a bigger number than 32 and we all know how big an improvement the move from 32-bits to 64-bits gave us in console gaming.
Ignoring for a moment the actual technical merits (or lack thereof) of 64-bit over 32-bit, lets take a look at what we know about the near future for Apple. First off, we know that Apple will be switching from IBM and Motorola/Freescale’s PPC chips to Intel’s x86 chips, and that we’ll first start seeing x86 Macs in 2006. Second, we know that this change is due to IBM’s inability to provide Apple with the chips they need, in particular 3+ GHz G5s for the desktops and any G5s for the laptops. Third, we know that Intel’s next laptop chip, the Yonah, will enter production in late 2005 to be seen in commercial products in first quarter 2006.
So it stands to reason that the first x86 Macs we see will likely be Yonah-powered PowerBooks and/or iBooks. Now, the Yonah would seem to be the ideal successor to the G4. It’s dual-core, 65 nm construction should offer a significant advance in the processing power to power consumption ratio, and it’s 667 MHz front-side bus and shared cache technology should offer a significant advance in speed. Finally we’ll not only have the best look laptops around, but the fastest. And what’s more, we’ll actually be able to put them on our laps! But is it really the chip that mobile chip that Mac users are looking for? I’m not it is.
No, I’m not complaining about the x86 ISA (though I do believe PPC to be the superior architecture, I understand and fully support Apple’s move to x86), nor am I particularly concerned about the lack of AltiVec. The problem is the Yonah is not 64-bit. A Yonah-powered PowerBook is not going to be the equivalent of a G5 PowerBook. Rather it will be the equivalent of a significantly speed-bumped G4 PowerBook. A vast improvement, yes, but not really what we were hoping for.
So what is the future of 64-bit computing at Apple? Are we to remain with 64-bit desktops but only 32-bit laptops? According to Infoworld, OS X 10.5 Leopard will be a 64-bit OS, but we’ve been running a 64-bit OS on 32-bit laptops for a while now. While I know that from a technical standpoint a 64-bit processor will make very little, if any, difference in the day to day performance of my computer, I can’t help but think that this is going to hold Apple, and us Mac users, back. Especially as AMD already provides 64-bit mobile chips that Windows could leverage to maintain it’s long-perceived advantage when it comes to processors, in laptops at least.
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.
There’s no question about it; this is an exciting and strange time for us as Mac users and aficionados. Years ago, a younger, brasher, probably rather annoying version of myself used to taunt PC-using coworkers with the Flaming Pentium Bunny ads, RISC vs. CISC, those few shining moments when the 604e or the G3 actually surpassed whatever Pentium was new that month. I’m sure more than a few of us might, if pressed, have to admit to doing those kinds of things. Those were the days.
And as a result of all that, it somehow feels a little wrong to embrace them at this point, partially because once upon a time Intel and Windows were inextricably linked. But the rise of AMD allows us to look at Intel a little more fairly, as a company that succeeds (or loses ground) on its merits, not through some kind of monopoly abuse. Most of us don’t think highly of Microsoft Windows, but the chips that run it tend to work as advertised (notwithstanding the fun we had with the Pentium Division Bug a long time ago). Powerful and cheap, the more so now, thanks to stronger competition, and utterly unavailable to those of us with more discerning tastes in our operating system software.
This doesn’t make us wrong about everything we said in the past. The G3 did kick booty once upon a time, and it’s not just Steve Jobs trying to sell shiny metal towers when he says that the G5 is a fine machine today. It doesn’t make the Bunny Man ads any less stupid. It doesn’t stave off the queasy thought of their execrable xylophone tones appended to an ad for the latest Mac. It certainly doesn’t make it okay to tart up the PowerBook of 2006 with the NASCAR-like decorations that PC users are so accustomed to.
What it does do allow Apple to still make the products that they want. If the G5 was never going to make it into a notebook, they weren’t going to come out with a PowerBook G5 that resembles my old 165c, except heavier. It was easy to wonder at the time of the TiBook how they could do any better, size-wise. The only way they’re going to, be it on the desktop, in your lap, or some other way we haven’t even figured out yet is if they have the processors to drive it. They aren’t going to go backwards, so they had to take a hard step to go forward.
Could this backfire? Sure. Native applications could well cease to be economically attractive in five years. But at the same time, it could open the door for new applications that have never been feasible. High-end CAD would be at the top of my list, for instance. Assumptions that applications will disappear are partially predicated on the idea that their market share stays put, but it’s safe to say that that isn’t in their plans. They no doubt see this as the ideal moment to claw for a much larger chunk, with Windows under siege and languishing in overlong development cycles, a huge operating system technology advantage, and unprecedented mindshare with the success of the iPod. It is, for lack of a better term, ballsy.
But for those of us who’ve used the Mac since whenever, do we expect anything less?
Original post: Why Intel is Bad for Apple
Speculation hit the fan a few days ago when CNet (and WSJ?) reported that Apple would end its partnership with IBM and Motorola, and switch from using the PowerPC to using the Intel x86 architecture (I had heard the rumor even earlier through some old friends). Knowing this is almost meaningless, because there are so many details missing. For example, will Apple simply start manufacturing x86 computers that can run Mac OS X or (shudder) Windows? Does that mean that Mac OS X would run on any x86 PC?
This just in: the rumor is true.
Almost certainly not. Despite soaring sales of iPods, Apple’s income comes almost entirely from the sale of Macintosh hardware. Releasing Mac OS X for x86 would kill their Macintosh hardware sales, because very few people would continue to go to Apple when they could get machines elsewhere for much less. I don’t see any way Apple can make the switch without a significant drop in income.
But that’s not the real problem. Apple could still make x86-based hardware that runs Windows, but allow Mac OS X to run only on their hardware. This would piss people off, but it’s completely feasible (I’ll post another entry about how sucky it will be for loyal Mac users to switch to x86 hardware).
The real problem is much more complex and subtle. And at first blush, doesn’t sound like a problem. It sounds like a windfall for Mac users. Try to follow along.
Picture this: Apple makes the switch to Intel-based hardware. Mac OS 10.5 is released and runs flawlessly on it. All of your favorite apps release updates (never mind that these will be expensive upgrades, not maintenance releases), even Metrowerks. Then, using the knowledge gained from the 68K-PowerPC migration and a clever adaptation of WINE (an open-source implementation of the Win32 API), Apple adds the most significant feature: the ability to double-click a Windows application and run it on your Macintosh. No Virtual PC, no separate environment, no Start menu.
It’s not that big a stretch. The windows might even look like Aqua windows. No doubt it would be a boon to Mac users, and would remove serious hurdles to Mac adoption across all market segments.
Mac users would notice a difference. See, Windows applications generally suck. While Apple could put the window close box in the right place, the OK and Cancel buttons would always be backward. Text selection in fields would be different (although Mac OS X kinda broke that anyway). Pressing the Tab key would tab through all of your controls, regardless of your system settings (although maybe some apps could be made to respect those settings). In many cases, menu shortcuts would require that you use the control key, not the Command key, to access them (no, you would not simply be able to replace “ctrl” with “command” inside WINE…for many reasons I can’t get into here). I could write an entire article about differences between Mac and Windows apps, pointing out the real reasons why Windows is inferior to Mac OS. But I think most of you understand this. The Windows UI is fundamentally different from that of the Mac.
OK, so you say to yourself, so what? I’ve had to run VPC for years, I’m used to that. It’s only in the one app I have to use, but now I can have it run fast? Sign me up! This is a perfectly understandable reaction. There’s no reason a Windows app couldn’t run at nearly the full speed of its Windows XP counterpart (there would be some overhead mapping I/O to the Mac OS, but not much; double-buffering windows takes time).
Now imagine you’re a software developer making an application for both Mac and Windows. Your Mac customers comprise, generously, 15% of your market share (you’ve got more competition in the WIntel market). In reality, it costs you to work on the Mac version enough that your Mac margins are pretty slim, but it’s still more income overall.
All of a sudden, Mac OS X/x86 is released with WINE. It doesn’t take you long to realize that you will lose only a few of your Mac customers if you drop the Mac version of your product, because now they can run the Windows version just as easily. Sure, it’ll take a year, maybe two, for Apple’s base of Intel users to grow enough. But the old version of your app will still be available for your Mac customers who don’t switch.
But you’ll save so much money on development! Now all you have to do is make sure each new version of your Windows app runs on Mac OS X/Intel! And you won’t have all of the marketing costs associated with delivering multiple versions of your app. What a boon!
If this sounds alarmist, it’s because I haven’t explained it well enough. (I have to get back to work, and I’ve already spent too much time writing this.) But think it through. Software developers who’ve made Windows and Mac OS versions of their applications will inevitably drop their Mac efforts. It’s in their bests interests. Most people don’t care enough to do more than grumble. They need the functionality, hamstrung as it is, to do their work. They will continue to pay for the application, especially because they can run it reasonably well. Mac-only developers will rarely, if ever, be able to profitably compete with established Windows applications. The growing momentum to provide Mac versions of applications will stop dead in its tracks.
It may take a few years, but you will slowly see the erosion of the Mac into an elegant OS for launching crappy apps.
And how long after that will once-loyal Mac users simply switch? There are so many more hardware choices in the WIntel world. Apple can never allow Mac OS X to run on that hardware, so we users won’t see that benefit if we stick to the Mac. And once all our important applications are available only in their Windows flavors, what’s to keep us using the Mac? Safari? Mail? iMovie? Sure, there will be some who stick around, like those who use FInal Cut Pro 90% of the time. But most of us? What would be left?
All of this is predicated on developing an architecture that allows Mac users to “painlessly” run Windows applications. Does anyone believe that will never happen?
The move is certainly bad for us. Within a few short years, we will lose many of our native Mac applications. But within a decade, it will be bad for Apple, too, as users abandon a platform that’s lost all its advantages.