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Apple developers cautiously upbeat on Intel

Some developers of software for the Mac will have an easy transition to Intel chips; others will find it more difficult.

SAN FRANCISCO--Apple developers aren't exactly looking forward to rewriting their applications to run on Intel chips, but the switch will have its benefits.

Apple Computer's adoption of processors from Intel will let the company come out with faster notebooks, said attendees at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference here. Macs will also likely get cheaper because Intel chips often cost less than IBM's.

"It will cushion a lot of the barriers about switching to the Mac," said James Richardson, the tech team lead for desktops at NASA.

At the same time, the transition won't be an absolute breeze. Intel chips and the PowerPC chips produced by IBM found inside today's Macs are based around completely different architectures, so getting the existing software to run on the new computers will require releasing whole new versions of applications.

Mac applications written in Cocoa, Apple's latest development environment, and released relatively recently should be somewhat easy to convert, according to Apple and attendees. "It won't be that tough," said Rod Schmidt from InfiniteNIL Software. Theo Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research, said converting Wolfram's Mathematica 5 application, a complex scientific program, took a few hours.

"We're talking about 20 lines of code out of millions," he said. (Gray was invited to speak at the event by Apple.)

Older applications written in Carbon, which preceded Cocoa, will take some work. Applications written on the newer version of Carbon based around XCode tools will require tweaking and recompiling. Older Carbon applications dependent on Metrowerks tools will have to be fully ported.

And for those applications that never get converted at all, Apple is releasing Rosetta, an emulator that will let PowerPC-based applications run on the Pentium families.

Various problems will likely crop up as well. "Tackling the (user interface) is the hard part; getting the crispness will be difficult," said Samuel Watters at Near-Time, which makes a collaboration application. Still, "I would love to see the competition heat up. Apple will be directly priced to compete with Microsoft," he said before the keynote speech.

"It is going to be a difficult transition," said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report. Two weeks ago, Krewell, among the vast majority of analysts, downplayed the notion that Apple would convert to Intel because of the difficulties involved.

To ease the transition, Apple has been working steadily in the background. The company has been working with Intel for the last five years, and internally it already has copies of Mac OS X that run on Intel hardware.

"Every release of Mac OS X has been compiled for PowerPC and Intel," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in a speech.

The company will also soon ship a $999 developers' kit that includes a Mac running a 3.6GHz Pentium processor, the Intel-based version of Mac OS X, XCode 2.1 and Rosetta.

Developers will start to get some of the Intel-based software at the conference, but tools and other software will roll out steadily. Consumers won't be able to buy Intel-based Macs until June 2006. The transition will be complete at the end of 2007.

Technical questions aside, perhaps one of the more difficult issues will be getting the Apple community to embrace Intel-based hardware. For years, Apple has released ads (based more than once on subsequently redacted benchmarks) touting the supposed superiority of the PowerPC. The IBM chips have their loyalists. One Apple fan said days before the speech that he expected Jobs to get booed off the stage.

"It's kind of sad. I thought they would go with the PowerPC," said Kirill Alexandrov, at Logo Computer Systems.

Others, however, hoped that the Intel ingredients will be something that can be played down, even though virtually all Intel-based computers come with a big shiny Intel badge on them.

"No one is going to know that Intel is inside. It doesn't make a difference," said Jayson Adams, of Circus Ponies Software.