The harsh line that divides Mac computers from Windows-based machines softened more today as Apple confirmed it will use Intel processors in future Mac computers. The switch will make Macs, at least in theory, capable of running the Windows operating system.
And the change has been in the wind for some time. Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, told the company's annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco that for the past five years, every release of Mac OS X has been designed to run with both IBM's PowerPC processors and Intel processors.
"Mac OS X has been leading a secret double life," Jobs said, while running visuals for his keynote address from a Mac running a 3.6-GHz Pentium 4.
The first Macs with Intel processors will appear next year, with the switch to Intel mostly completed by end of 2007. Apple did not say which specific Intel processors it would use, nor did it say which Mac models would be the first to run with Intel inside.
Apple will not allow the Mac OS to run on non-Apple hardware; however, the reverse may not be prohibited.
"In theory, in the future, you will be to run native Windows on a Mac and Apple will not do anything to prevent it," says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director with Jupiter Research in New York.
Why the switch? Jobs cited Intel's better power performance per watt as well as shortcomings of IBM's PowerPC chip. IBM's 64-bit PowerPC 970FX processor, which Apple calls the G5, is very competitive with Intel's Pentium 4 processor when it comes to desktop performance. However, the latest version of the chip required Apple to use liquid cooling technology to make sure its Power Mac computers would function. IBM and Apple have thus far been unable to work the G5 into a notebook and have been unable to produce a 3-GHz Power Mac.
"It kept Apple in this reactive mode where they had to explain why a 2-GHz Power PC is as competitive as a 3-GH Pentium," said Gartenberg. He adds that the switch to Intel would lead to more competitively-priced Macs.
Some analysts called the move "risky" and "foolish."
"While we can see why moving to a dual architecture approach may bring some benefits, a wholesale move away from the IBM chips would be extremely foolish. Intel is not the 'de-facto leader in processor design' that it was a few years ago; in the recent past, Intel has been out-innovated by both AMD (with a better approach to 64-bit computing) and IBM (with a better long-term strategy around multicore chips)," wrote Gary Barnett, Ovum research director in a research note sent by e-mail to the IDG News Service.
Apple's next challenge will be recompiling current Mac apps for the Intel-based architecture--ideally using a universal binary code that contains the elements required to run on both Intel and IBM architectures.
Apple's Xcode development environment would be key to this transition, and at the conference today, Apple announced the release of a $999 Developer Transition Kit, which consists of an Intel-based Mac development system and preview versions of Apple's software.
The company plans to include technology called Rosetta in the first computers it ships with Intel's chips, Jobs said. Rosetta, named after the famous stone used to translate Egyptian and Greek in ancient Egypt, will allow binary code created for the PowerPC to run on Intel's chips at a pace Jobs termed "fast (enough)" on one slide of his presentation. Jobs loaded several PowerPC-based applications during a demonstration, such as Adobe's Photoshop, which took a fair amount of time to boot as the binary code was translated.
Developers had mixed reactions to the news. Some, such as Glen Speckert of SpeckTech, didn't foresee huge challenges with switching to the Intel-based architecture. Speckert develops video-streaming software.
Others, such as Mac hardware utility developer Alastair Houghton, disagreed. The founder and managing director of U.K.-based Coriolis Systems said that software that runs at a low level of the OS would have to be tweaked line by line.
"There are going to be quite a few people with a lot of work to do," he said.
Jobs also confirmed that Apple was currently developing the next version of Mac OS X, codenamed Leopard, due out at the end of 2006 or early 2007. He also said that iTunes would support podcast radio broadcasts and that a preview release of QuickTime 7, with support for the H.264 video codec, was available for Windows.
Tom Krazit of IDG News Service contributed to this report.