TV-PGJune 7, 2005: It's officially official: all Macs will be Intel-based by the end of 2007. Meanwhile, sales of laptop computers outstrip sales of desktop ones for the first time ever, and why wasn't Steve wearing blue jeans during yesterday's keynote address?...
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Pigs Fly & Hell On Ice, Day 2 (6/7/05)

Listen-- hear that? That's the fat lady singing, as one of the longest-running and most-revived crackpot Apple rumors in the history of the universe finally bites the dust: Mac OS X on Intel. The creepy thing, of course, is that this particular rumor has finally died once and for all because it came provably true; faithful viewer Shane Burgess was first to alert us to Steve Jobs's official declaration of "So Long Big Blue, Howdy-Do Chipzilla" as reflected in yesterday's press release. Flaming bunnymen notwithstanding, Apple has officially declared the PowerPC to be a dead end for the Mac platform and now trumpets Intel-- and apparently x86-- to be the future. The world's first Mac with Intel Inside® (probably a Mac mini) will ship in less than a year, with the entire product line making the leap by the end of 2007.

Several Wall Street analysts seem upbeat about the decision, although some, as BBC News reports, have said that the move "could confuse" customers-- gee, what tipped them off, the hastily-dug mass graves of the thousands of Mac fans whose heads exploded immediately following the announcement yesterday? But we've kicked it around for a while (and been extra-careful to avoid seeing the keynote stream in an attempt at rational, RDF-free thought), and no one's more surprised than we are to discover that we're oddly comfortable with the new direction.

See, here's the thing: while we still suspect that the PowerPC architecture holds more promise than anything Intel's got in the works, that doesn't mean it's going to be right for Macs on a platform-wide level. IBM is clearly far more focused on cranking out chips for high-end servers, the world's fastest supercomputers, and (somewhat incongruously) every major video game console coming on the market; if it cared a fig for personal computers, it would have held onto its own PC business instead of selling the whole thing to Lenovo last year. If IBM considered personal computer chips to be at all a priority, we'd have seen a 3 GHz G5 a year ago, and at least the slightest visible progress toward the advent of a G5 that could fit in a PowerBook without requiring that users carry a back-mounted battery pack and freon tank. How many times have Power Mac G5s been delayed because IBM couldn't cough up the chips? How many customers have held off buying a PowerBook because they're waiting for a G5 model that's probably no less vapor today than it was two years ago?

Intel, on the other hand, can produce-- not necessarily because it's any better than IBM at design or manufacturing, but because it makes an obscene number of Pentiums, etc. for every other major PC manufacturer on the planet. When Macs use the same chips as the ones used in the other 19 of every 20 PCs sold, you can bet Apple's never going to have to worry about when the next shipment's coming in-- or even when or how big the next clock speed increase will be, because all of its competitors will be in exactly the same boat. Like we said yesterday, it levels the playing field from a hardware perspective, and leaves the company free to compete on its strengths: user interface, user experience, hardware and software integration, and attention to detail.

Think of it this way: if Steve Jobs broke into your house in the middle of the night and replaced your PowerPC with a Pentium, swapped your installed Mac OS X with an Intel version, and replaced all of your apps with MacIntel binaries, would you even notice? The processor's so far removed from the Mac user experience that, unless raw performance is palpably different, the argument's almost moot. Some tests show the G5 to be faster than the fastest Pentiums, some show the opposite; our guess is that for most tasks and most users the difference isn't big enough to be noticeable. What we will notice is that Macs ship when they're supposed to and people who shop for computers based primarily on clock speed will have less reason to skip the Macs completely. (Oh, and since Macs and Wintels will use the same chips, Windows emulation could conceivably run as fast as Classic does in Mac OS X. Hellooooo, Enterprise sales-- and welcome back, Education! How ya been?)

We know, the transition will be a royal pain in the keister; developers will have to compile the equivalent of the old 68K/PPC "fat binaries" if apps are going to work on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs (good thing disk space is cheap), and if you think this won't make a lot of potential customers want to wait another year or two before buying another Mac, you need to switch to a higher grade of crack. (We ourselves were planning on getting a new top-of-the-line Power Mac before the year was out, but there's no way we're sinking any money into a dead-end system.) But most PPC binaries will run transparently (though slowly) in emulation, both Microsoft and Adobe have already pledged to ship Intel binaries of their apps, PowerBooks will finally stop looking so ridiculously underpowered compared to Wintel laptops, and most of us will eventually get over the fact that, time frame aside, Rob Enderle was actually right about something.

Okay, so it's a little icky to think of Macs using chips made by Intel, but heck, old-timers will remember how scary it was to find out that the chips in the first Power Macs were made by IBM. (Yes, IBM used to be the enemy.) Perhaps the scariest thing of all is that someone apparently got a brain transplant and a dose of horse tranquilizers, because some of the best commentary on the MacIntel shift comes courtesy of none other than Steve "I'm Not an Ape, But I Play One in MPEG Video Clips" Ballmer himself, who actually sums it up very nicely: "What changed?" Of course, he was trying to argue that Microsoft has no reason to worry about its market share in light of Apple's switch, which is just plain wrong (cheaper Macs, better availability, less customer resistance, etc.), but from a Mac user's standpoint, those two words are pretty accurate. Macs will still be Macs, regardless of what's crunching the ones and zeros inside.

Oh, the times in which we live: Microsoft dumping Intel for PowerPC; Apple dumping PowerPC for Intel; Rob Enderle being (mostly) right; Steve Ballmer accidentally being the Voice of Reason. With so much craziness in the world, how can we not embrace the MacIntel strategy? Yeah, we'll be fine with it. As long as Apple doesn't slap those godawful "Intel Inside" labels on its hardware.

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Warmer Thighs For Everyone (6/7/05)

You know, the more we think about it, the more convinced we are that Apple's primary reason for finally giving up on PowerPC and hopping into bed with Intel is the continued lack of a portable G5 and the total stagnation of laptop-happy G4s. Even from a purely intra-Apple standpoint, it's getting increasingly difficult to keep the company's pro/consumer desktop/portable product grid consistent. For years, Apple was always careful to keep consumer-grade Macs like the iMac, iBook, and eMac at earlier chip generations and slower clock speeds than professional models like the Power Mac and PowerBook. That strategy finally fell apart when it couldn't wait any longer for IBM to squish a G5 down to PowerBook size and had to ship the iMac G5 and hope that no one noticed the glaring discrepancy: the lowest-end iMac had a 1.6 GHz G5 and cost just $1,299, while the fastest PowerBook at the time was packing a mere 1.5 GHz G4 and would set you back a minimum of $2,499. Sure, there's the portable-vs.-desktop factor, but the bottom line was that a pro Mac had a slower processor than a consumer system that cost half as much. That sort of thing doesn't look good to potential PowerBook customers.

Things only get worse when you bring the rest of the notebook ecosystem into consideration. We don't have much (okay, any-- ain't life grand?) experience with recent Windows laptops, but several of those who do whine to us on a near-constant basis that Apple's fastest PowerBooks, lovely and lickable though they may be, are clearly and visibly slower than comparably-priced Wintel offerings. Don't get us wrong, here; we love our PowerBooks. But we also don't happen to need two metric tons of skull-stripping speed in our portables, and we know there are plenty of video, audio, and design professionals out there who really do wish their PowerBooks-- still the best tools for the job-- had some mobile-Intel-grade guts-level zippiness to them.

Why's this so important, you ask? Well, you may recall that portables have been making up a larger and larger slice of Apple's spicy deep-dish in recent years, and that trend isn't a Mac-only phenomenon; according to an Associated Press article, the research firm Current Analysis claims that, last month, sales of laptops finally overtook sales of desktop computers for the first time ever, snagging 53 percent of the market due to falling prices and because-- this is the important bit, here-- "just a few years ago, the performance of notebooks was nowhere near where it is today." We suspect that laptop performance in the Wintel world is increasing a lot more quickly than for us in PowerBookland, because three years ago the high-end PowerBook packed a G4 at 800 MHz, so in all that time we've only doubled clock speed, which doesn't sound like great shakes to us.

Interestingly, portable sales in Apple's sales mix last quarter didn't come close to overtaking desktops; they scored only 43 percent of the total number of Macs sold. Granted, the introduction of the Mac mini surely skewed things to the desktop side a little, but the portable percentage was only 40 percent the quarter before, so the ratio is increasing regardless. Maybe PowerBook and iBooks did overtake desktop Macs last month and we just don't have the numbers to show it. But if they didn't, you can bet that performance-- or lack thereof-- had a little something to do with it, and if Apple is selling fewer portables percentage-wise than the industry overall (especially when its portables are so freakin' gorgeous), well, that might be the sort of thing that finally pushed Apple to say sayonara to Freescale and Big Blue. Just a guess.

At any rate, given the increasing shift to notebooks in the market, it's obviously more important than ever that Apple keep its portables competitive-- and at the end of the day, backlit keyboards and motion sensors probably aren't going to cut it all on their lonesome. Until the Intel switchover, maybe Apple can spark sales by adding a cupholder and a fold-out corkscrew and fish scaler.

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The Trousers Reveal All (6/7/05)

Okay, we still haven't actually watched the Stevenote stream, but we just now fired it up solely to confirm the unthinkable. So after marveling at the image quality (which seems loads crisper than previous keynote streams), the widescreen aspect ratio, and the quick response when dragging to various points in the stream-- hooray for QuickTime 7 and H264, apparently-- lo and behold, the various faithful viewers who broke the news to us weren't kidding: Steve wasn't wearing blue jeans!

Which isn't to say that he wasn't wearing pants. He was. We're not saying he was standing up there in glow-in-the-dark Valentine's Day boxer shorts or just swingin' in the breeze or anything like that, so don't freak out.

But said pants clearly weren't his omnipresent ultra-casual blue jeans; they appear instead to be black chinos of some sort, which are still mostly casual and stylish and totally within the fashion range of His Steveness, but nevertheless mark a clear foray into the realm of the unfamiliar. Which leaves the door open for any Mac fans still mired in denial about this whole Intel migration thingy to explain how Steve could possibly have sold us all out to Intel: simply put, that wasn't Steve.

Yup, if you're desperate to rationalize how Steve could have ditched PowerPC for x86, just look at the pants and tell yourself that Steve was obviously kidnapped by Intel thugs and replaced by an exact double-- exact, that is, except for the telltale chinos. (Leave it to Wintellians to miss the fine details.) It's all part of an elaborate Intel plot to steal Apple from IBM as payback for IBM having lured Microsoft away on the Xbox 360 front. Simple, right?

Okay, so maybe it's not quite as simple or as likely an explanation as, say, "Steve spilled a mocha on his jeans ten minutes before the show and had to steal pants from a passing underling," or "Steve never got around to doing laundry this week and he's working his way back through his closet," or "Steve was the target of an experimental satellite-mounted Jeans-to-Chinos ray currently in testing by the Department of Defense." But Occam's Razor can be boring, and if thoughts of a far-reaching Intel conspiracy to replace the real Steve with an evil clone help you sleep better at night, more power to you; who's it gonna hurt?

Meanwhile, if the "just didn't get around to doing the laundry" scenario is the right one, we should probably all be thankful that Steve had only worked his way back to the chinos; another four days and the only clean thing he'd have had left would have been last year's Halloween costume. Then again, being told that Macs are going Intel was about as surreal as it gets; would being told by a man in a banana costume have been any weirder?

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