Enterprise Unix Roundup: Apple's Hysteria Induction Field

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Jun 9, 2005

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For years, tech pundits have talked about the "reality distortion field" that surrounds Steve Jobs when he rolls out an idea in public to overwhelming acclaim, even when the pundits think it's crazy. It might be time, however, to change "reality distortion" to "hysteria inducing," and this time, the pundits seem to be the least immune.

Judging from the reaction to Jobs' Monday announcement at the Worldwide Developer Conference that Apple is migrating the Mac from PowerPC to Intel x86 processors, one might think he'd delivered his keynote while executing random audience members before horrified onlookers in the press — who then left the conference variously gibbering about the demise of Microsoft, Apple, Intel, AMD, Linux, and IBM in tones ranging from gloating to histrionic.

From our perch, where we tend primarily to think of OS X in its role as a Unix server operating system with a lot of interface and management polish, it looks like the transition will have an impact on areas beyond Apache, postfix, Cyrus IMPAD, and the assorted other traditional Unix services OS X uses.

According to Jobs, OS X itself has been built in parallel on both x86 systems and its native PowerPC for years now. Thus, most programs that compile successfully for the PowerPC architecture will do so with equal facility on x86. No particular voodoo with emulation layers or other "OS in a sandbox" frippery should be required. The developer tools for compiling all this stuff, such as gcc, have a decent history of enabling cross-platform work, and the services software itself has a rich history on the x86 architecture.

For third-party developers, however, it gets a little more interesting.

So all in all, Apple has given itself and its developer community two years to make this move and has taken steps taken to ensure much of the community was already on board without even knowing it up until this week.

If they've adopted Apple's Xcode development environment and Cocoa libraries, Apple asserts that recompiling the apps will require minor modifications. For any PowerPC systems out there in two years' time, when Apple plans to have completed its transition, Xcode will produce so-called "fat binaries," which enable a single application bundle to run on both x86 and PowerPC. Again, no emulation layer or other gimmick will be needed. Developers have already been reporting fairly pleasant porting experiences.

For developers who haven't adopted Xcode, the road is rockier. Those who choose not to port their apps can use an emulation layer ("Rosetta"), which will allow most PowerPC binaries to run on x86 systems. Mac rumor site Think Secret already has some Rosetta benchmarks complementing a widespread belief that it will run PowerPC binaries anywhere from 75 to 90 percent as fast on Intel gear.

Not stellar, but we don't think it will matter for most applications in Apple's core market: Microsoft, Adobe, and others are already on board, and evidently Apple's own lineup of media tools have been part of the secret and parallel x86 development path.

So all in all, Apple has given itself and its developer community two years to make this move and has taken steps taken to ensure much of the community was already on board without even knowing it up until this week.

Lower-end Macs running Intel chips are due out in less than a year. That initial wave of consumer-grade Macs will provide a level of real-world testing for the new architecture before the higher-end systems (which we presume will include server offerings) make it to market.

As much as a change in platform is nothing to be sneezed at, Apple has dealt itself a pretty good hand on this one. The pundits might want to press a cold washcloth to their heads, sit in a shaded room, and come back next week, when the hysteria-inducing field has subsided.

The same, by the way, goes for Linux desktop advocates, some of whom have expressed stark, sweating terror that OS X will invade commodity PCs on enterprise desktops everywhere, closing that market to Linux before it can achieve critical mass. There's no space for that this week, but it's an idea that deserves more thorough treatment before being discarded.

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