As everyone on the planet and their mother knows by now, Apple is officially stopping the use of PowerPC chips and will phase them out over the next 2 years. They will be going with the 800lb Gorilla of the Chip Market: Intel.
Some people, OK, a lot of people on their blogs have questioned this move, but here’s my take on it. Just to let you know, I am an Eclipse on Mac programmer by day and a Cocoa on Mac programmer by night. I use a PowerBook G4 mainly and I’ve got a Mac mini and a decommissioned generic Pentium II at home. And I’ve seen change…
…But this was huge.
When I walked into the room where the Keynote was, there were speakers blaring and it seemed more like a concert than a conference. U2 and all the techno from the iPod ads was shaking the room. Everything seemed larger than life. There were ushers trying to find room for everyone and I got a seat about 10 rows back, all the way to the right. The lighting was top notch, with big glowing Apple logos floating above the stage.
So Steve Jobs steps out and the crowd goes crazy. Some guy yells out “Steve, we love you!” I’m guessing if Steve were to jump out in the crowd, he could probably surf it. But he seemed to have something on his mind. And we had something on our mind. We had seen the TV crews outside and all the rumors and news reports over the weekend. Honestly, I think most of us wanted it not to be true.
Steve went over how the user base was growing, the retail stores were growing (with a great little movie about it), how the developer base was growing, how attendance at WWDC was the highest in a decade, and how iPod and iTunes is this huge digital music juggernaut. So we were pretty pumped. There was going to be 2 million copies of Tiger shipped soon. I thought about how Spotlight was a partial fulfillment of Jef Raskin’s dream to not have to remember where you put a file or what you named it.
Then the bomb dropped.
It seemed like time was standing still. Or that the all the air had gone out of the room. It was surreal. But it was true. Steve gave the official answer that the performance per watt projected into the future spelled the effective end of the AIM alliance. (That was Apple, IBM, and Motorola.) Basically, by mid 2006, Intel would be over 4 times as powerful as the PowerPC chips per watt. This seems like a huge difference especially as more people buy laptops instead of desktops. We’re still waiting on the dual 3.0Ghz G5 desktop and the PowerBook G5. And not being able to deliver those were two big straws on a camel that was straining to stand.
You might think that this seems like a bad move because there will be a lot of volume in the Power line soon. Yes, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all run Power, but they are all customized versions of Power. So PowerPC wouldn’t get all the volume from the game consoles because they are effectively four different lines of chips: one for Apple, one for Sony, one for Microsoft, one for Nintendo. This is all good for IBM chip manufacturing, but it wouldn’t have helped Apple.
After the initial shock came some comforting news: Apple had a plan B all along. I think they got this from NeXT, which had ported OpenStep to a variety of platforms. Apple had been running OS X on Intel for the past 5 years (which is when OS X came out.) I wonder if they have it running on any other platforms.
Then came the big surprise ending: Steve had been running his presentation on a copy of OS X on a Pentium 4 the entire time!
OK, so what does that mean for us Mac developers?
Well, a lot of us won’t have to do much. Java programmers won’t have to do anything. I guess Eclipse will port over SWT to OS X/Intel. Even if it doesn’t, there is a PPC to Intel translator built into OS X/Intel called Rosetta. It reminded me of HotSpot and it seemed quite good.
Cocoa programmers will have to get Xcode 2.1, upgrade their project, set a flag to compile for both PPC and Intel, recompile, and deploy their new Universal binary which contains both executables. Pretty simple.
There’ll be plenty of time to do this, since Apple isn’t scheduled to ship Mac/Intel computers until around this time next year.
On a personal level, this is on one hand exciting and nerve-tingling, but on the other hand, no big deal. I’ve been through a lot of different transitions, at the language level (Smalltalk -> Java), at the OS level (too many to count), and at the hardware level (I’ve had a Timex Sinclair, a PCjr, a Mac, an Amiga, a 10th Anniversary Gateway, several custom built-PCs and now the PowerBook and Mac mini.) I think this will be smoother than the rest, because the OS, language, and frameworks will stay stable, and only parts of the hardware will change.