Goodbye PowerPC, Hello x86

Apple is transitioning from PowerPC processors made by IBM and Motorola/Freescale, to x86 processors made by Intel.  For once, the rumors turned out to be true.  Of course, this particular rumor has been around for years and has popped up every few months, and it would hardly be realistic to say that it’s been true all along.  In fact, Steve Jobs said in the announcement today that Apple has been maintaining an x86 build of Mac OSX for some time, and that it was "just in case," not part of a long-standing plan to shift to x86.  It turned out to be a good backup plan, given IBM’s continual inability/unwillingness to produce the CPUs that Apple wants.

Posted by Anthony on 4 replies

Comments:

01. Jun 7, 2005 at 09:38am by Kev:

I was not that surprised about this. They’ve been releasing a Darwin x86 build for every major and minor revision of Mac OS X. I think they should maintain the PPC branch as the new backup plan or ’revert’ plan once they actually move to x86. I also don’t think it would be that big of a deal to maintain a third and/or fourth architecture as further ’just in case’ plans. Given that FreeBSD is the base of OS X, it is and should remain extremely portable between architectures. /end rant.

02. Jun 9, 2005 at 06:05pm by Anthony:

In terms of technical details like that, I wasn’t too surprised either, given that Apple pretty much single-handedly killed Motorola’s chip-fab division (forcing them to dump it, which then became Freescale), and that no one really expected IBM to make the same mistake by making and selling CPUs at a loss to Apple.

It was surprising because of the phenomenon described in this recent ARS article:

Quoting Hannibal:

Apple Computer, Inc. has "sold" slightly exotic, "technically superior," performance-oriented hardware for years, regardless of where the company’s products have actually stood vis--vis the PC on the performance ladder.  Or, to put it differently, the "RISC" PowerPC architecture has been a core part of the Apple brand and the overall "mythology" of the Mac platform since the 68K transition, even if that architecture rarely delivered on company’s promises with benchmark numbers.  So what Apple fans are mourning right now isn’t the loss of some actual technical superiority of the Mac hardware, but rather the loss of the perception of that hardware’s "technical superiority."  Even more importantly, Mac enthusiasts are also mourning the loss of that perception’s role in the ongoing maintenance of the myth of Apple and of the Apple brand in the form in which these two have coexisted in the PowerPC era.  [emphasis added]

The x86 PC’s >90% market share is comprised by pretty much everybody, most of whom view their computer as a means to an end, and couldn’t care less (if they even know) about the particulars of the CPU and ISA.  Apple’s paltry 3% market share, on the other hand, is largely comprised of Mac fanboys.

I mean that in the nicest possible way, but the truth is that these Mac users choose to use Macs for no other reason than the fact that they are made by Apple.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with performance or features, though they often try to argue that it does.  In reality what matters to them is that 1) it’s made by Apple, and 2) it’s different than a PC.

That is the one reason this announcement is surprising.  So much of the lure and appeal of the Mac has been the fact that it’s so "different" from the other personal computers on the market (which is to say, x86 PCs).  The PowerPC architecture and CPU at the heart of the Mac was the biggest and most important difference between it and the PC.  Now that is gone, and the loss for Mac users won’t be technical -- in that area they will gain, not lose -- it will be emotional, as in, their emotional attachment to the romance of what it means to be a Mac user.  That won’t disappear entirely, of course, but a Macintosh running BSD on Intel x86 hardware is much less "Appley" than were the Macs running OS9 on PowerPC processors.

03. Jun 9, 2005 at 09:11pm by Kev:

Speaking of ’surprising,’ I’ve also read that even though the Intel version of Mac OS X might be only able to run on Apple hardware due to its specific firmware on a chip, a spokesman for Apple said they would not try to stop people from running Windows on an Apple-Intel box. I just wonder how long it’ll be until someone reverse engineers the firmware as software, and loads up OS X on a regular old Dell...

04. Jun 9, 2005 at 11:59pm by Anthony:

Yeah, that’s the big question.  Every content-locking mechanism that’s been cooked up by the MPAA and RIAA has been swiftly broken, and Apple has much less money than either of those organizations.  So I tend to think OSX will be running on non-Apple hardware shortly after the x86 version is released.  And that’s assuming that Apple even tries to lock it to their hardware; I’ve read some reports saying that Apple is claiming they won’t even try.

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