For better or worse, we are all in for a headache

For better or worse, we are all in for a headache

by Ted Landau

So...as Steve Jobs revealed at the WWDC Keynote address today, Apple intends to have its complete Mac line running on Intel processors by 2007. A demo version of the Mac OS running on a Pentium processor was shown at the Keynote. It was using an Intel-based version of Mac OS X that Jobs said had been in development for years.

To ease the minds of developers, Jobs explained how easy it would be to create applications that will run on both processor platforms. And existing applications should be able to be updated to run on Intel processors with just a few weeks' work. Finally, for older applications that do not get updated, Apple will provide emulation software akin to what it did when PowerPC Macs were first released. This will allow these non-updated applications to work on Intel-based machines. Microsoft and Adobe have already jumped on board, lauding the move to Intel and promising their support.

So, at least within the Steve Jobs force field, there are no problems to worry about.

Reality is something else again.

I leave it to others to provide detailed analyses of the implications of this move (I will be eagerly reading them, along with the rest of you, over the weeks ahead). For now, I will just say this:

The move to Intel will inevitably be a major headache. To know that this is true, all you have to do is look at any recent MacFixIt home page. It is filled with reports of problems related to the release of Mac OS X 10.4.1, a minor upgrade to Tiger. True, most of the reported problems are not serious and many do not affect all users. But this is just for a minor bug-fix update after all. A move to Intel processors is an exponentially larger change. Similarly, the move from 680x0 processors to PowerPCs was successful, but the road got very bumpy at times. The move to Intel is an even greater leap; I expect the road to be even bumpier.

At a time when Microsoft is moving to IBM processors for its Xbox, it is certainly ironic to see Apple lining up with Intel.

This all leads to two big, as yet unanswerable, questions:

  • Will this headache ultimately be a tolerable side-effect of an otherwise successful transition -- or will it lead to a serious setback to the Mac platform at a time when it has finally stemmed the negative publicity and market share slide that plagued it in the 1990s?
  • And even if the transition is successful, will it be deemed worth it? That is, will we see faster and cooler (literally and figuratively) Macs than we would have otherwise seen?

Personally, I trust Steve enough to know that he would not have made this move on a whim. He would need to be convinced that there was no better option. Still, that doesn't mean it is good news for Mac users. Personally, I am feeling a bit nervous right now. It will take some time, and some good progress reports on how this transition is going, before I calm down.

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