If this news story turns out to be true, this is huge news!
On Monday, Apple will start it's annual WorldWide Developer's Conference (WWDC). Usually at big shows like this, Apple makes big product announcements. The question, amoung Apple enthusiasts like myself, is what will be the big product announcements? They just release a new version of their OS X operating system (Tiger) about a month ago. They just upgraded their line of PowerMacs a few weeks ago. Those are already out there. There's been rumors of a new version of iTunes (version 4.9) that will support Podcasting, but I hardly think this is big enough news to announce. Perhaps they would announce new iPods or something. That's a possibility, but noone heard any rumors about this lately so that seemed unlikely. The only rumor left was the on-again off-again rumor of Apple switching to Intel processors. This rumor has popped up time and again over the years, but nothing ever came of it. I was attracted by the thought of this rumor, but I thought it was very unlikely because this would be a HUGE and very risky change for Apple. I never thought it was true. Apparently it is. Here is why I think this could be an incredibly smart move by Apple.
Apple computers currently run on a processor made by IBM called the PowerPC. This is a completely different processor from the ones made by Intel and AMD. This means that any operating system, or application written for this PowerPC would have to be significantly different from the same application written for an Intel processor. This is because each processor has a completely different instrucution set, different registers etc. This means that for an application to run on an Apple computer and an Intel computer, it would require essentially maintaining two completely different simultaneous versions of the program. This is a big undertaking for any company. Due to the cost and time involved in maintaining two separate programs, one for Apple processors and one for Intel processors, many companies simply choose not to support Apple. Apple computers are much less common than Intel computers, so companies naturally choose to go with the more common computer that they can make money on. This changes now. With Apple now running on Intel processors, most of the differences between the Apple version of the application and the Intel (i.e. Windows) version of the application go away. This means that converting your application to work on Apple computers just got significantly easier. This means more companies are likely to start supporting Apple OSs in their applications. More software for Apple computers means a larger potential market, which means more sales of Apple operating systems.
I would be willing to bet that Apple already has their OSX operating system running perfectly on Intel CPUs and has had it running for some time. Why? OSX is based on a free, open source operating system called FreeBSD. FreeBSD has always had a version that runs on Intel CPUs, and since most of the foundation of OSX is FreeBSD, that means that most of OSX already runs on Intel CPUs. The only issue from an operating systems point of view, is how to get all those old PowerPC applications running on Intel cpus. There are emulators out there that are available to run applications written for one CPU on another CPU. Likely Apple will build this CPU emulation into a future version of their operating system. This will act as a good interim measure to allow everyone's older software to continue to run until the providers of the software have a chance to convert it to run on the Intel CPUs.
This change over to Intel CPUs also makes some other things I've been observing lately make more sense. Recently AOpen produced a new computer that runs Intel CPUs but is essentially a perfect clone of the Mac Mini. When I first saw this computer, I thought that this was serious 'lawsuit-bait'. Why would this company intentionally built a perfect clone of the Mac Mini when they know Apple would sue them over this? Perhaps the truth is, this was done with Apple's blessing. If Apple is considering switching to Intel CPUs, they would like to see if it is possible to build a Mac Mini based on Intel CPUs. So they go out and secretly hire AOpen to build a proof of concept Intel CPU based Mac Mini. Either Apple did this, or Intel did this as a way to prove to Apple that their CPUs could work in a Mac Mini style box.
Another thing I've noticed lately is a seemingly renewed interest in the Mac version of Microsft Office. It was announced recently that the next version of Microsoft Office (version 12) will be released at the same time on Windows (using Intel CPUs) and Macs (supposedly using PowerPC CPUs). At firt I thought this was odd. The differences between the two CPUs would cause the Mac and Windows versions of Office to be very different. I would think it would be difficult to release them both at the same time, since they would have to be so different. Now, with the announcement that Apple will use Intel CPUs, this means that the two versions won't be that different after all. This means that Microsoft's job to port Office to the Mac is MUCH easier and it makes this simultaneous release of both versions much easier. Could it be that Microsoft has already known about this switch to Intel CPUs for some time and was already preparing for it?
By switching to Intel CPUs, Apple also makes the porting of other Open Source applications to their operating system much easier. I would expect that most open source software is written on Intel CPUs these days. This is due to the sheer numbers of them and the cheap availability of them. PowerPC chips on the other hand, are relatively expensive and less common. Since most apps are written on Intel CPUs, this means that by switching Apple's OSX to run on Intel CPUs, you have basically taken care of most of the work of porting the app to OSX already! If the app is written for Linux on an Intel CPU, porting it to run on FreeBSD (the basis for OSX) on an Intel CPU is little or no work. Hence, even more software available for the Mac.
This switch also opens up an interesting possibility - porting Apple software to Windows! I know my friend Dave would certainly be interested in getting his hands on GarageBand for Windows! This would also make maintaining such critical apps as iTunes easier since they no longer have to maintain two completely different versions.
As for the hardware side of things, I think this is quite possible and not as difficult as you might think. Most external devices on PCs and Macs use either Firewire or USB. Since Macs and PCs already support both of these, that means these devices should easily work in the new Intel based Macs. As for internal hardware, both PCs and Macs use PCI or PCIe hardware. This means that by switching to Intel CPUs, Apple makes the jobs of device drivers much more simple. Since the CPUs are the same on both Macs and PCs now, the driver differences are much less.
This could even have the pleasant side effect of helping Linux. If hardware manufacturers suddenly have to write drivers for FreeBSD on Intel CPUS in order to make sure their hardware works on Macs, it's not difficult to port those drivers over to Linux, due to the similarities between FreeBSD and Linux. This could lead to a vast increase in driver support for Linux.
The possibilities in this switch boggle the mind. I hope Apple is successful in this move. I suspect they will be.