Dispelling a few Intel Myths

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding Apple’s move from PowerPC CPUs to Intel x86 ones, so in the interests of clarification:

  • Mac OS X will run on my Dell
    No, it won’t.

    Somehow Apple will make sure that the operating system that makes the Mac special remains a Mac-only thing – as far as they can, perhaps by using the (rumoured) DRM features on Intel’s CPUs. It might well become possible to emulate it under, say, Windows or Linux at decent speed, but it probably won’t run natively. At the end of the day, Apple needs the money from hardware sales to keep its operating system Insanely Great.

  • No-one should buy a PowerPC-based Mac now
    This isn’t totally groundless, but it’s being vastly overstated. Developers know that there are a huge number of PowerPC Macs out there that they have to target if they want their applications to get any kind of use. With fat binary creation being a matter of simply ticking a box or two in Xcode (once the appropriate parts of the code have been modified), the minimal amount of effort to reap a very important reward will be something developers will bear in mind for quite some time to come. 68k code didn’t disappear for years.

    The only exception to this might be games, where companies may be less willing to port code over to PowerPC-based Macs (given the greater complexity of the task), leaving them as x86 only. But such a decision would leave any Mac port made with an initially very small potential market. On this front, there is talk of Wine style compatibility methods being used, making companies like Aspyr irrelevant. Some game developers seem to welcome the move, whilst others think the transition will be very painful, with two sets of code to test.

    But the Mac you just bought hasn’t suddenly become obsolete. It will probably live as long as it was going to anyway. Apple knows Mac users don’t like change – hell, there are still plenty of places still using OS 9 – so they won’t push users on that hard.

  • Leopard will leave PowerPC Mac owners out in the cold
    This seems extremely implausible, but I’m not going to say it won’t happen without explicit evidence to the contrary. But it makes no sense.

    Tiger has sold well, and will have made Apple a considerable amount of money. Why would they want to get rid of that revenue stream? As Steve said in the keynote, they’ve been building for PowerPC and x86 for five years. They aren’t going to change that soon. In fact, what you’ll probably see is that not until Mac OS X 11 will the system be x86 only. And that’s a way off.

  • x86 means malware
    This is a novel one, but has no basis in reality.

    Viruses and malware which exploit vulnerabilities are often operating system version dependent, and what works on an unpatched version of Windows XP will not work on Windows XP SP1 or SP2 (usually). Porting malware and spyware will not be any easier.

  • SSE is no replacement for AltiVec
    AltiVec isn’t necessarily as great as Apple has made it out to be over the years.

    SSE and AltiVec are two ways of achieving the same thing, and the general consensus seems to be that for developers, SSE is more accessible and easier to code for at the end of the day, even if perhaps AltiVec may have been technically superior. In my previous post, I noted how the better state of the GCC compiler on x86 (vs. that on the PowerPC) means better optimisations and so faster code.

  • Apple is abandoning the chip of the future
    You could be forgiven for thinking that given the fact that IBM’s PowerPC CPU (or variations thereof, i.e. the Cell) is to be used in all three next-generation games consoles, it is the architecture to be betting on. Why is Apple forsaking it for x86?

    The fact is that when it comes to processor requirements, games consoles and personal computers are two very different things. Whereas a console requires a highly specialised processor which can be manufactured cheaply in massive quantities over its 3-5 year lifetime but which needs no improvement once it has entered production (save, perhaps for die size reduction and tweaking), a personal computer (whether Mac or PC) needs a more generally useful processor and, as mandated by 20 years of history and ever increasing software complexity, regular speed increases, whether by traditional means (i.e. clock speed) or through multicoring. IBM’s plans for the PowerPC (and, consequently, its R&D budget) are mainly geared towards supplying the needs of console makers, not those of Apple.

  • This is all about DRM
    Pamela Jones of Groklaw fame has, somewhat surprisingly, weighed in to comment on the switch. Her view is that Apple’s reason for moving to Intel is all about taking advantage of the chip’s DRM features, and then out of her perpetual fear of anything proprietary, bashes Apple for not allowing Mac OS X to run on any old beige box.

    Moving to Intel for DRM makes no sense. If Apple really needed on-chip DRM, they would have asked IBM for it. No, the move was about regular speed increases for processors, although as I have noted above, Apple may use any on-chip DRM to ensure that Mac OS X only runs on Macs. That’s pure speculation though.

  • Linux is doomed
    John Dvorak, professional troll, believes that the move to Intel will be bad for Linux, although his reasons seem rather spurious. The Linux ‘movement’ should actually see some benefit from this – it will be in Apple’s interest to tweak GCC on x86 as much as possible, and this will mean faster apps on all open source operating systems (that use GCC).

It’ll be fine. At the very least it means faster, cooler PowerBooks. For that, I can hardly wait.

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