OS X on x86

We watched Apple move from 68k to PowerPC. They survived, and were better off for it. We watched as Be moved from the Hobbit processor to PowerPC, and then to x86. The x86 transition worked so well for Be that we heard Jean-Louis saying things like “Our only regret is that we waited so long to do it.” Now it seems that Apple is not getting the speed bumps they need from IBM, and are going to start shipping Macs with Intel processors. With all of the recompiling (and porting of advanced instruction sets) that a move like that entails. With the inevitable impact on current sales. With the shock and awe of “professional pundits and analysts,” who need to take a deep breath and loosen their jaw muscles a bit, methinks.

The story could be a red herring or false leak, but news.com is pretty credible and doesn’t do rumors. The armchair critics at MacSlash and SlashDot are having a field day with this. Of course it almost certainly doesn’t mean OS X running on any old beige box — chances are great that the system will depend on custom ROMs only available on Apple hardware (remember that most of Apple’s profit is in hardware — the OS is luxury bait to sell the hardware, a mystical glue that welds consumers to the real cash cow). But the door does get opened, and it’s not inconceivable that we could see OS X on generic boxes in the future. With Darwin already x86-compatible, a huge amount of underlying work is already done. I have no love for CPU architectures – I’m here for the OS (just installed Tiger today, having a gas). The cheaper and more ubiquitous the box, the better.

I’ll be at WWDC most of next week – will be interesting to see the announcement and watch the fallout.

6 Replies to “OS X on x86”

  1. By Monday we’ll have the answers to this hullabaloo. But I’m betting the apple/intel deal, if it’s real at all, will turn out to be one of these.

    1. Apple has some new device (maybe an ipod variant or palmtop) coming out that will use some intel CPU. After all, Newton used ARM, it doesn’t stretch the imagination that Apple might be going back into the Newton business with a heavyweight, disk based newton built around strongARM. Which is an Intel product these days.
    2. Apple is contracting with Intel to produce some species of powerpc cored centrino for laptops.
    3. Apple is contracting with Intel for video chips, or other support chips.

    The idea that Apple might port OS X to x86 is laughable, I think. They’d be fools to break binary compatibility again. If Intel has somehow made Itanium compatible with PPC, I *might* be able to see it, but I doubt it. I think Apple’s probably drooling over the multi-core PPCs that IBM is going to make for X-box.

  2. > I think Apple’s probably drooling over the multi-core
    > PPCs that IBM is going to make for X-box.

    You are forgetting that these versions of PPCs for XBOXes are not compatible with the G5s. They are variants of the G5. Apple would have to either break binary compatibility again to use them, or IBM would have to backport the dual core technology goodies back to normal G5s. Thing is though, Apple sells 5 million G5s per year, while XBOX will sell an estimated 100 millions, and so IBM doesn’t give a monkey doing all this work for nothing. So, I think that Apple feels screwed again by IBM –like they were from Motorola a few years back– so they just decided that “enough is enough” and they are going with Intel, which is a ‘stable’ company regarding compatibility and timely advancements. Besides, it’s no big secret that Apple is maintaining x86 compatibility for OSX “just in case” for years now, in a dark room in Cupertino…

  3. Oh I know they could make OS X go on x86. I just don’t think they will, unless they’ve got a way up their sleeves to make existing software run at speed on whatever chip they’re going to, *or* if all these kernel changes in Tiger were also about creating hardware abstraction.

    I don’t know enough about the kernel/microkernel of OS X to know if this idea is far fetched or not, given a mach kernal on x86, compatible roms, etc etc, COULD you run existing OS X and mac apps against it?

    That’s my fundamental thought; that they’re not going to throw away their software base to throw in with Intel. If they were going to do that, the time to do it was when they left 68k. I don’t see them doing it now unless they are desperate. I’m still betting it’s some license deal with PPC or this is a totally different product.

    Imagine a moment. What if all this is about a tablet machine that runs Tiger widgets and this is all about StrongARM?

  4. >What if all this is about a tablet machine
    > that runs Tiger widgets and this is all about StrongARM?

    Could very well be. However, regardless, staying with the G5 is a dead end. The G5 can not be put in laptops, and laptops are the strength of the Mac sales. For this reason alone, it makes sense to make yet another move to another platform and break binary compatibility.

    Besides, things don’t have to be bad. If Apple introduces “fat binaries” like they had in NeXTSTEP, the exact same binary can be run on both PPC and x86. It adds a bit on the file size, but the advantages are tremendous. Recompiling your app with the appropriate tool can create a single binary for any supported architecture and this makes the transition way easier.

  5. Maybe they’ll announce a G6. I still just have this feeling that the whole thing is a fake leak so whatever they’re really announcing will come as the bolt from the blue Jobs loves to do so much. Dunno. It will be interesting to see. I wouldn’t put it past them to deliberately discredit the rumor mills via false leaks. The real announcement could be G5 laptops, and the moral of the story, ‘If we didn’t announce it, it may well not be true.’


  6. Well, score a healthy helping of crow for me. While it doesn’t hurt those of us who own PPC macs, at least in the short and medium terms, this is going to be very bad for mac retailers, IMHO.


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