Apple's Intel migration

The leap to dual-core Woodbridge sets the stage for Leopard 

At Apple’s 2005 Worldwide Developers Conference, Steve Jobs announced the PowerPC-to-Intel transition to a gathering of diehard Mac developers. The WWDC crowd already knew the shift was coming; they’d read the big secret in the papers. Jobs spoke to reassure attendees that they’d have plenty of time to adjust, that Apple wasn’t going to precipitously stop building PowerPC systems. There’s no cause for alarm, said the Great One, as if trying to prevent the keynote room from turning into a mob marching to CompUSA to put in their pre-orders for Vista.

There was no uprising. Apple was the butt of jokes for a while after the January delivery of the Intel-based iMac, an occasion commemorated as much by the new architecture as by the platform’s single native application, Apple’s iLife ’06 consumer media suite. But that’s ancient history now. Apple’s software library is completely ported to Intel, along with a solid 98 percent of third-party commercial software. Active open source projects have come to Intel as well. In fact, Apple’s Intel transition, along with the revitalization of Apple’s Darwin open source OS, lit a fire under an already active Mac open source community.

Apple’s switch to Intel has had a couple of other interesting consequences. Apple initially stood back from support for Windows, saying only that the Intel Mac platform did nothing to prevent Windows from running. But when it was discovered that Microsoft was dragging its feet on adoption of a new boot firmware standard, the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI), Apple actively modified the Mac platform to make Windows easier to install. Boot Camp modified the Mac EFI firmware to make it Windows-friendly, automated the process of installing Windows, and supplied Windows drivers for unique Mac devices. Apple used to lure Windows users to the Mac by saying, “Mac runs Office,” but now it’s “Mac runs Windows.”

Boot Camp set the Mac up to boot Windows, but dual-booting isn’t practical for most users. Previously low-profile virtualization software outfit Parallels came up with the real Windows solution. Parallels Desktop became the first indispensable client virtualization solution by running Windows perfectly, and with nearly zero performance overhead, as a guest on any Intel Mac. More to the delight of fence-sitters, Parallels Desktop also hosted Linux, BSD, and nearly the whole laundry list of popular x86 operating systems with the exception of OS X. OS X’s inability to virtualize itself for development, consolidation, and isolation remains one of the shortcomings of the platform, and it’s become a more glaring limitation with the arrival of Intel’s hardware-assisted virtualization and Parallels’ one-step guest OS install.

The transition to Intel came in two waves: First, Apple moved its 32-bit clients from PowerPC to Intel Core Duo. Then it moved those clients to 64-bit Core 2 Duo and rolled out the Mac Pro workstation and Xserve server, respectively, based on the Woodcrest Xeon architecture. Now every Mac has at least two 64-bit x86 cores with hardware virtualization. There’s a lot of untapped power there, but it won’t go to waste. The combination of the ready-to-pounce OS X 10.5 Leopard and, where it’s needed, the server-capable Parallels Desktop, will unlock that power and reawaken Apple’s dormant server program.