Macintosh computers using Intel chips will be on the market by this time next year with all Apple Macs moved over to Intel chips by the end of 2007.
The move, which has been rumoured for several weeks, is seen as a blow to IBM and Freescale Semiconductor, which provide the PowerPC chips that Macs have used for ten years.
For the most part, developers cheered the move, although there were some audible gasps among the 3,800 developers in the Moscone West Convention Centre the moment Apple CEO Steve Jobs confirmed that Apple will be undertaking its third major technology transition in the last 15 years.
New Intel CEO Paul Otellini joined Jobs on stage to announce the chip maker's newest customer. "We are so excited at Intel to be given the opportunity to work with Apple to bring you great products," Otellini said.
The company previewed its Mac OS X Tiger running on an Intel-based Mac at the conference during Jobs's keynote speech. Apple also announced the availability of a Developer Transition Kit that consists of an Intel-based Mac development system and preview versions of Apple's software.
The move is being made because Intel has "the strongest processor road map by far", Jobs said.
"As we look ahead, although we've got some great products now, we can envision some amazing products we want to build for you. And we don't know how we can build them with the future PowerPC road map," he said.
The problem with the future PowerPC chips is performance per watt, Jobs said. Intel's chips are far ahead of IBM's when it comes to delivering performance without consuming a lot of power, a quality that is very important to Apple's future products, he said.
IBM's 64-bit PowerPC 970FX processor, which Apple calls the G5, is very competitive with Intel's Pentium 4 processor when it comes to desktop performance. However, the latest version of the chip required Apple to use liquid cooling technology to make sure its Power Mac computers would function. IBM and Apple have thus far been unable to work the G5 into a notebook, the fastest growing segment of the PC market, Jobs noted with disappointment.
Analysts called the move "risky" and "foolish".
"While we can see why moving to a dual architecture approach may bring some benefits, a wholesale move away from the IBM chips would be extremely foolish. Intel is not the de facto leader in processor design that it was a few years ago; in the recent past Intel has been out-innovated by both AMD and IBM," said Gary Barnett, Ovum research director.
Steve Fortuna, senior IT hardware analyst at Prudential Equity Group, said his firm believes that "by switching to a more mass-market processor, Apple likely risks diluting its value proposition as it has less control over the product road map. Apple also likely risks alienating its core loyalist base."
Otherwise, software compatibility could also be an issue because independent software vendors will have to adapt applications to run on Intel chips, he said.
Apple has a plan for dealing with the software issues that will arise, Jobs said. First off, a complete version of Mac OS X has been running on Intel's chips for five years, a project that had long been rumoured but never confirmed, he said. "Mac OS X was cross-platform by design right from the very beginning," he said.
Backward compatibility for future applications will be addressed through a new version of Xcode, Apple's IDE (integrated development environment) for Mac OS X, Jobs said. Xcode 2.1 will allow developers to create binary code for both the PowerPC architecture and Intel's chips, he said.
But for existing applications, there is no way around the work that will be required to move the software from one architecture to another. Applications based on Apple's "Cocoa" APIs (application programming interfaces) will need only a few tweaks and a recompile, and smaller "widget" applications built using Java will run as is, Jobs said.
Older applications built with the "Carbon" APIs will be harder to qualify, especially if Apple developers have yet to switch from the Metrowerks IDE to Xcode, he said. Half of Apple's top 100 developers have moved to Xcode, while another 25% are in the process of doing so, he said.
Wolfram Research ported its Mathematica computational engine to Intel's chips in only a couple of hours, said company co-founder Theo Gray, during the presentation. Microsoft and Adobe also plan to port existing Mac OS-based applications to Intel's chips, executives from both companies said.
But the porting of thousands of other smaller applications will test the resources of smaller software companies. Therefore, it's likely not every application will be ready to go when the first Mac OS-Intel machines start to ship, Jobs said.
The company plans to include technology called Rosetta in the first computers it ships with Intel's chips, Jobs said. Rosetta, named after the famous stone used to translate Egyptian and Greek in ancient Egypt, will allow binary code created for PowerPC to run on Intel's chips at a pace Jobs termed "fast " on one slide of his presentation. Jobs loaded several PowerPC applications during a demonstration, such as Adobe's Photoshop, which took a fair amount of time to boot as the binary code was translated.