Spoutin' Off: Apple's new core has a big heart
By Michael E. Rau
June 27 2005
It's no great secret that I've had a love-hate relationship with Apple for 25 odd years, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I've been asked for my take on the proposed marriage of Apple and Intel.
Judging from the inquiries, I get the impression that most expect me to object, but I really don't. My preference for Apple systems has little to do with the hardware (other than my ongoing appreciation for their sense of aesthetics in industrial design). Rather, it's always been about the operating system and applications.
If, from an engineering perspective, the best direction for Apple systems to evolve is to migrate to an Intel chip, why not? But in order to reach that conclusion, I had to answer a question regarding the reason why Apple chose the PowerPC chip to begin with - a question which I hadn't seen addressed in any report on the Apple/Intel announcement.
Bear with me - This gets a little geeky.
In the early '90s, a concern arose within the chip engineering community about the sheer number of instructions which computer processor chips were being required to execute. Some engineers with IBM and Motorola felt that well-written applications could run on a far simpler set of instructions.
Their solution was to create a chip design called RISC, which stands for Reduced Instruction Set Computer. They possessed the desirable characteristics of being less-expensive and more efficient, including running at lower temperatures, than their CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computer) counterparts.
They recognized the inherent advantages of the RISC concept and in 1994 chose to migrate their systems to a chip made by Motorola, the PowerPC 601. All Macintosh software was, from that point on, written to take maximum advantage of running on the reduced instruction set.
It was this which allowed a Mac application to run noticeably faster than its Windows counterpart running on an Intel chip (a CISC design) with the same clock speed. It also allowed more system resources to be devoted to other processor-intensive tasks, such as creating an easy-to-use graphical user interface or rendering complex media. This helps explain why graphics-related industries have always preferred working on Mac systems.
The PowerPC chip has obviously evolved over the years with the current 64 bit G5 processor being IBM's PowerPC 970.
So what changed to cause Apple to rethink its direction? There are two primary issues.
The first is that, in a nutshell, RISC systems have become more complex and CISC systems have become more efficient, with Intel and AMD leading the way.
The second is that IBM has apparently lost interest in further developing the PowerPC chip. They told Apple that without significant financial subsidies, further development of the chip would occur at IBM's convenience. Such a declaration had to make Steve Jobs' hair stand on end.
Apple has a good track record of making major systems transitions, so while I'm sure there'll be bumps, I expect that this change won't cause any major headaches.
The more intriguing question is how a Mac system running on a chip which can also run Windows will affect the penetration of the Mac OS into the workplace.
All indications are that you will be able to partition the main hard drive and install Windows on the Intel-driven Mac. This could really grease the skids towards getting Mac OS X into a significantly greater number of corporate and industrial environments.
Interestingly, Michael Dell stated recently that if Mac OS X was reconfigured to run on Intel chips, and he was granted the appropriate permissions, he'd like to start selling Dell computers, pre-loaded with OS X, to the participants in their huge market share.
Did I just feel the Earth shift? Is it possible that Apple may again try licensing the Mac OS to other systems manufacturers?
This is highly improbable. Mr. Jobs has indicated that, although they'll use similar chips, it doesn't mean you'll be able to run Mac OS on an Intel-powered machine configured for Windows.
Apple's Intel chip will apparently have a proprietary set of instructions which will make it unique to Mac hardware. Apple will continue to design and exclusively manufacture its own systems (although most Macs are actually manufactured overseas by contractors to Apple's specifications).
This has been, and always will be, the bottleneck in Apple's attempts to increase market penetration. They'd need to increase their hardware manufacturing capacity by a factor of ten to obtain a 25 percent market share. Perhaps they should consider a co-branding scheme (Apple/Dell, anyone?)
In the meantime, If you've been contemplating buying or switching to a Mac, you really should feel perfectly comfortable doing so. As I mentioned earlier, Apple's record for major systems transitions is good and any Mac system purchased today should be viable for many years to come.
Mike Rau is a communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send comments to Mike or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com
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