Apple on Intel – No Big Deal

It has been 20 days since the start of the 2005 World Wide Developers Conference for Apple Computers. Steve Jobs confirmed what many had speculated for years. Apple’s Macintosh line of computers (their only line) would change to run on Intel chips.

There has been TONS of talk about this, what it means for Apple, what it means for Microsoft, what it means for Linux, what it means for Dell, and probably what it means for George Bush and maybe even what it means for your grandmother. It seems the smoke is clearing and the dust is settling and what is left is a huge mess of misinformation and some solid facts. I’m just going to state a few things from my point of view. Only time will tell whose thoughts and opinions turn out to be correct.

First is the notion that many power user types will want to buy an Apple computer and dual boot a Microsoft Windows operating system. This is a plausable idea at first, but lets consider some things. Apple keeps its computer easy to use. There are a number of things in the Intel move that I do not think will change. Holding down ‘C’ on bootup to boot from CD, or holding down ‘T’ to enter target disk firewire mode are two things that I think the new Intel based Macs will have. Think for a moment how these things might be accomplished on a current PC. They can’t! Well, the holding of C to boot from CD could be accomplished at a BIOS level, but today, far more technical expertise is required to force a PC to boot from CD. As for target firewire mode, I suppose the same could be done with a fancy BIOS, but nothing exists today. (I’m a firm beleive that anything is possible, it just takes some code, or the proper engineering.)

Apple currently accomplishes these types of features through the use of their Open Firmware Architecture. When a Mac boots, it has far more knowlege about the hardware on which it is booting than an Intel PC does today. Apple will use an Open Firmware to boot their Intel based Macs. The new Macs will not have a BIOS. Wikipedia gives a good background on what is a BIOS.

When a modern PC boots, it is still acting as an original IBM PC. Even Pentium CPUs boot in 16bit real mode. Apple doesn’t have to function this way. They can allow their firmware to switch into 32bit protected mode, see all of the memory in a system, utilize all the power of whatever CPU it uses.

That brings us back to the dual boot question. Even though an Intel CPU is being used, the new Mac is probably NOT going to be “PC Compatible”. Setting aside questions such as “How does a CD boot?”, “Will is use El Torrito to boot CDs?”, and “Where do drive letters fit in?”. Just the fact that there is no BIOS looking to boot a DOS operating system means that Windows XP is not going to boot on this thing. There is not need for MBR programs, DOS style Partition tables, none of that is on the new Mac. This thing is as much a Mac as a PowerMac G5 or a PowerMac G3.

The same dual boot question applies to Linux. My guess is that Linux won’t install on the thing the same way that Linux installs on a Windows Compatible Intel based computer. Lilo doesn’t fit anymore. The way a boot CD looks is no longer the same. But the Linux community reacts quickly. Linux will be running on the thing, even in a dual boot situation shortly after the release of the first machines, if not before then.

A note about 32 bit protected mode. I really don’t know much about the Intel 64bit architecture that Intel copied from AMD, but the fact that those x86_64 computers boot DOS and Windows the same way as the original IBM PC means that the argument above holds true for them. It seems that maybe they would have a 64 bit mode that would be used instead of the 32 bit protected mode previously mentioned. I don’t think the new Macs are going to use a 32 bit Intel chip. They will use the new 64 bit Intel chips.

Given the above, it should be clear why Dell shipping OSX machines is not as clear cut as some would suggest.

Somethings I’m not surprised about are the questions about VMWare and Virtual PC, and the use of Wine. Wine will now work on OSX. This is HUGE! I’m sure some performance enhancements will be needed, hopefully to remove the X Windows layer from Wine and let Wine run directly on one of Apple’s display layers. Even running Wine through Apple’s X11 implementation will allow for thousands of Windows programs to run on a Mac without emulation for the first time.

I hope to see a VMWare port to MacOSX soon. Remember that Virtual PC is a virtual machine on Windows, but on Mac, Virtual PC has always been an emulator. Microsoft would need to release a new version of Virtual PC for the new Macs. I can’t speculate on whether Microsoft will do this port quickly, slowly, or not at all. But at this point, FORGET DUAL BOOTING. All of the dual boot, machine boot argument above becomes irrelavent as soon as Windows XP is booting in a Virtual Machine. VMWare or Virtual PC, it doesn’t matter, Windows XP running as a Virtual Machine (instead of emulated) on the new Macs mean Windows applications at performance that Mac users have never seen on their Macs! Finally we can buy loaded up Powerbook Centrino’s and max out the memory and run Linux and Windows inside virtual machines. This is my dream. No more multiple computers.

This rant got a little long. I’m sure that I have more opinions and responses to the myriad of responses to this Intel based Mac announcement. Note that I have avoided use of the word “macintel” because its pointless. A Mac is a Mac.

2 thoughts on “Apple on Intel – No Big Deal”

  1. I’m not sure about the BIOS vs. OF issue, but another possibility that “sources” have talked about it that Apple will require the OS to handshake with an EDID chip on the board in order to boot.

    Whatever they decide to do, I hope it works. The state of PC hardware is a bit of a mess and I’d like to ensure the preservation of my ivory tower.

  2. Yes, I intentionally didn’t mention the number on the chip method, because I just don’t think it is viable. It’s the Pentium serial number all over again, and Apple has a history of respecting its customers privacy to at least some extent.

    IMO, it won’t happen that way. Only time will tell. If it does happen that way, it may prevent me from purchasing a Mac.

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