Jobs moves Apple to Intel chips and a secret backroom operation scores again.
June 6, 2005
The personal computer world is about to undergo something of a paradigm shift. Steve Jobs announced that that Apple will begin using Intel processors in its Macs. It's been in the works for years.
At the World-Wide Developer's Conference in San Francisco, Jobs announced that every Mac operating system for the last five years had a secret doppledanger: a version that would run on Intel microprocessors. He even demonstrated it. Every system now in Tiger (Mac OS-X 4.1) runs on the Intel system and it is apparently indistinguishable from the current OS. Starting next year, your Macs will have Intel inside. The transition will be complete by 2007.
As he spoke, a sign bearing the Intel logo was lowered on the stage. Michael Dell, eat your heart out.
Why should you care, even if you own a Mac?
For one thing, it is an act of daring, born of frustration, and it could either kill the computer part of Apple, or make it a more serious player in the personal computer business—something more than just being an icon for nuts like me. The decision will be taught in business schools as an act of sheer balls, win or loose.
All this has to do with a major shuffling in the computer business that is realigning old allies and enemies in interesting ways. It involves industry giants: Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Motorola.
The move to Intel is risky for several reasons, the most important being that it is going to require the software engineers to essentially rewrite all their Mac programs. Applications are written with the architecture of the main microprocessor in mind. Windows programmers know their programs are going to be used on Intel chips (Pentium or whatever), or chips manufactured by other companies that emulate Intel’s architecture. Apple programs are written for PowerPC chips, made either by IBM (desktop PowerMacs) or by Freescale Semiconductor, a Motorola spin-off (PowerBook laptops). Eventually, all Mac programs would have to be written for the Intel architecture but will still have to be backwards compatible on present computers. Jobs is making his announcement at Apple’s developers convention and he has a sales job on his hands because they are the ones that are going to have to figure out how to make it work. He seems to have succeeded at first, but then word got out [on one of the websites Apple is busy suing] that it took four Pentium processors to get the Tiger demonstration to work.
Several Mac software suppliers, clued in a while back, have already produced Intel-ready versions of their Mac software, including Mathematica 5. Apparently, there is software that helps the transition; converting Mathematica took two hours. Both Adobe, and interestingly, Microsoft, promised Intel software, including the next version of Office.
The chutzpah is breathtaking. He is betting the company.
Rumors have circulated for years that Apple has an operating system in a closet somewhere that works on Intel chips. The rumors were true. The codename was Marklar (Apple loves codenames). Apparently, there were two teams of programmers: one doing the OS for the real world Macs and the guys in the Marklar rooms. There is history here: the Mac was developed in a similar way, with a secret operation totally isolated from the rest of the company, then producing Apple IIs.
Jobs admitted the task of converting completely to an Intel-savvy operating system isn't completed yet and he needed the developers to leap in. It likely will be ready for the new system update, Leopard, scheduled for the end of 2006 or the start of 2007, about the time, he said, Microsoft will release its very-late Longhorn Windows update.
Why is he doing this?
In part, Apple has been unhappy with its relationship with IBM for quite a while. The first PowerMacs used Motorola microprocessors and in order to get the supply system efficient, Apple, Motorola and IBM formed an alliance in 1991 to design and build microprocessors. The result was the PowerPC chip. Essentially, IBM supplied the PowerPC chips for Apple’s desktop computers while Motorola (and as of last year, Freescale), supplied the chips for Apple’s popular laptops. But there were problems.
The high cost of the chips made it harder for Apple to compete with price; the supply was unreliable and often caused Apple to announce machines it could not produce in sufficient quantity, and most of all, IBM had a technical problem it could not solve. The current laptops use a PowerPC G-4 chip, increasingly outdated by Intel’s competing microprocessors. Apple desktops have moved up to the G-5, which is at least as powerful as anything Intel produces, but it can’t put G-5s in their portable PowerBooks because IBM can’t find a way to make them cool enough—literally, they generate too much heat. Unless Apple does something, they will lose the laptop market. IBM also has failed to produce a 3 gigahertz G-5, which Apple has been promising for several years.
Jobs told the convention the PowerPC simply doesn't hack it any more. The Intel chips are far more efficient and obviously can be slipped into a laptop that doesn't scald your thighs.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has dropped Intel as a supplier for its video game machine (for the same chip Apple uses), a surprising move on its own because the Microsoft-Intel relationship rules the world ("Wintel" has become a generic abbreviation), and the two companies appear to really need each other. With Apple and Microsoft all moving toward home-centered electronic multi-purpose devices, the shuffle is fascinating because it will determine which microprocessor will be in which machine and who wins the gaming wars. The history of personal computing will be rewritten.
For IBM, the loss of Apple is not a big deal. Apple wasn’t that big a customer; the Apple account was barely profitable, and IBM is moving out of the personal computer business anyway. For Intel, it is the end of a long romance to get its chips into Macs, something they have been working on for 20 years. For Apple, it is a serious risk, but one that could pay off marvelously—if it works.