Correction to This Article
The Fast Forward column in the June 19 Business section incorrectly described a Web browser for Mac OS X called Camino. That program is based on an earlier Internet application, Mozilla, not on Firefox.

Switch to Intel Will Give Macs Power of Flexibility

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, June 19, 2005

Two weeks ago, Apple Computer said it would follow the advice of its own ads: "Switch." Starting next year, Apple will build Macintosh computers that run on Intel processors instead of PowerPC chips.

That's an enormous shift for the Cupertino, Calif., computer firm. Since the first Macintosh shipped in 1984, Apple has shunned Intel's processors in favor of chips from Motorola and IBM, to the point of trash-talking the Pentium in its ads.

The way Apple put that history aside to put Intel inside has few precedents in the industry. It's like the Air Force buying Russian MiGs, or Ford bolting a Chevy engine into its next pickup.

But Apple had little choice. PowerPC chips, despite a promising design, haven't kept pace with the expectations of Apple or its users. Two years after chief executive Steve Jobs promised a Power Mac with a three-gigahertz G5 processor within a year, neither that nor a G5 PowerBook are in sight.

Intel's advantage isn't speed per se; although its chips outpace PowerPCs in some tests, both kinds of processor work far faster than most users need. Rather, Intel's edge -- which it didn't even have until two years ago -- is what Jobs called "performance per watt" in his June 6 speech announcing the Intel move at an Apple developers' conference in San Francisco.

Intel's Pentium M chip for laptops -- along with upcoming desktop processors built along similar lines -- runs more efficiently than PowerPCs or other Intel chips.

This technology allows for much better laptop battery life than in current Apple PowerBooks and iBooks. It will also permit fast desktops that need little electricity and don't produce much heat -- both critical in compact machines such as Apple's Mac Mini and iMac.

Having chosen that goal, Apple has picked a fascinating route to it. If it does this job right, it won't just get more efficient processors; Apple and its customers will find themselves with unmatched computing flexibility.

Not only has Apple already rewritten its operating system to run on Intel chips -- it had the foresight to write and test an Intel-compatible version of every Mac OS X release alongside the PowerPC versions it shipped -- it's also preparing software called Rosetta to run most existing Mac software on Intel-based Macs.

And it's providing Mac programmers with a development toolkit, Xcode, to create bilingual, "universal binary" programs that run on either chip without alteration.

That's possible because hardly any programs are written in a processor's own dialect. Almost all are written in one of a few programming languages, then automatically compiled, or translated, into processor-specific binary code using development tools like Xcode.

Five Mac shareware developers --Thorsten Lemke, author of the GraphicConverter image editor; Andrew Welch, president of Ambrosia Software; Brent Simmons, creator of the Web-newsfeed reader NetNewsWire; Cabel Sasser, co-founder of Panic Software; and Mike Pinkerton, an AOL developer working on a Firefox-based Web browser called Camino -- interviewed by e-mail said making their projects universal releases would be, in Welch's words, "no big deal."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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