Under The Microscope

Surprises Inside.

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Holy Hell! Let’s be honest, that’s pretty much the first reaction developers have right now to Apple’s announcement that they’re moving to the x86 architecture. Despite the fact that the Wall Street Journal and C|Net News had reported this story as fact (not rumor) prior to the keynote, I’m sure most people are shocked by this change. There are a lot of details missing which we’ll get over the next few days, but for now I’ve compiled five major questions surrounding this change.

1) On what hardware will OS X run?

This is actually a two-part question. First, will OS X run only on Apple hardware? That is, will it be locked down to Mac computers with x86 chips inside? Other alternatives are that Apple will license the OS to companies like HP and Dell, or that it will run on any x86 PC. This would really be Apple taking the fight to Microsoft, which sounds exciting but might well be suicidal as well.

Right now, the company line is that OS X will only run on Macs. Phil Schiller was quoted as saying “We will not allow running Mac OS X on anything other than an Apple Mac”. That’s fine for now, but how realistic is it? Can Apple truly keep OS X off commodity PCs? Doubtful. Will they want to? Questionable. Certainly moving to x86 hardware allows Apple the possibilty of opening OS X up in the future.

The other question is, what types of processor will these new Macs have? IA-32, or x86-64? Or possibly both? This one will be answered relatively soon I imagine.

2) What will happen to Apple hardware sales over the next year to two years?

Prior to today’s keynote, John Gruber speculated that announcing x86 would lead to the “Osborne effect”, whereby current hardware sales dried up as users waited to purchase the next big thing. This move pretty much killed Osborne, but Apple survived the 68k to PPC transition in the early 90s. Time and the market will tell us what happens here, but it’s certainly an area of concern.

3) Just how fast is Rosetta?

During the keynote, Jobs demoed Rosetta, an emulator to allow programs compiled for OS X PPC to run on OS X x86. A video feed isn’t yet available, and even when it is, it’s a keynote and not exactly an objective source of data. So, the question is, will Rosetta be useable? Classic was useable, if not great. Will the performance here be equivalent to Classic? Will it be better? Worse? Jobs stated it was “pretty fast”, and for a man given to hyperbole, this doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement.

4) What will happen to the price of Macs?

For years, the Mac has been an odd computer, with many traits to distinguish it from Windows PCs. Many of these differences led to myths about the Mac, including the Megahertz Myth. With the move to x86, this will be irrelevant. However, the price of Macs has always appeared higher than PCs. I’ll let someone else debate whether “Macs are more expensive” – suffice it to say that the popular belief is that Macs are more expensive than PCs. Will the inclusion of mass-produced x86 processors bring the price of Macs down? If not, will this hurt Apple, as they will no longer be able to point to the current PPC chip (G3, G4, G5, whatever) as a reason for the price. We’ll find out the answer to this one once the consumer machines are released, in 2006.

5) What will happen to the Apple developer community?

Aside from the aforementioned shock, the major reaction I’ve seen thus far is anger. I don’t really understand it – users don’t care about the chip in their machine, they care about the OS and the user experience. An average user doesn’t know if he has an Intel x86 chip (aside from the Intel Inside stickers*), an AMD x86 chip, or a PPC chip, but he does know if he’s running Windows or OS X. Sure, we’ve all been told that the PPC was superior to x86 chips, and at times it was. But overall, they were always pretty comparable, despite the marketing hype.

So once developers move past our disgust at having swallowed and amplified this marketing hype for years, what’s left? It’s still OS X, regardless of the hardware underneath. We all need to recompile our apps, and according to Apple that’ll be easy. The real issue I see is with testing and support, something with which smaller developers will have problems. Everyone will need twice the hardware to handle all this over the next couple years until everyone is running an x86 Mac, and that is likely to be tough or impossible for some developers.

Until the consumer machines are released, the only way to develop for OS X x86 is to purchase a $500 Apple Developer Connection Select membership, and then pay $999 for the transition kit which includes an x86 machine capable of running OS X. It would be fair to say Apple’s not doing everything it could to accomodate smaller developers. Seeing how the software market shakes out will perhaps be the most fascinating part of all of this.

I just noticed the connection here between question 1 and question 5. If OS X is truly locked down to Macs, then this isn’t a huge deal, especially once the transition is complete. If OS X starts running on any and all PC hardware, the landscape of everything shifts dramatically, as Apple has the potential to rapidly start cutting into Window’s mammoth marketshare. If that happens, the face of the OS X developer community will change drastically.

Stay Tuned

Obviously, the only way to get true answers to these questions is to wait and see. This is a huge development in the Apple world, and the next 12-24 months are going to be crucial to Apple’s future. Personally, I can’t wait to see how it all turns out. One thing is certain, Rogue Amoeba will be there, continuing to produce top-notch audio software regardless of the hardware underneath.

*6) Will our new Macs have those obnoxious stickers on them as well? Nothing says “We don’t respect our customers” like in-your-face branding that you can’t get rid of without an acetylene torch.

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