Sebastian Kirsch: Blog

Monday, 06 June 2005

Mixed feelings

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 23:50

I am in a quandary this evening: Should I rejoice because Debian Sarge has been released, or should I mourn that Apple is switching to Intel processors?

Realistically speaking, the Sarge release does not solve any of Debian’s problems – it just gives the developers some breathing room. I wrote the Heise Newsticker announcements for the two previous releases 2.2 (2000/08/15) and 3.0 (2002/07/20), and even back then, we were lamenting the fact that the release cycles of Debian were much too long. Oliver Diedrich is making the same point in his Newsticker announcement for Debian 3.1: Sarge is out of date on the day it is released. Sure, it is an improvement over Woody, but everyone who wanted to have an even marginally up-to-date Linux has already switched to a different distribution long ago.

But well, who am I to talk? I have not updated my Woody box for almost a year, I have not even used it much except for watching TV and checking my mail. Ever since I got my PowerBook. Which brings us to the second topic of this post:

Apple is switching to Intel processors. After this has been rumoured and predicted for years, it has finally come true. The worst part: John C. Dvorak has been right after all, and he only missed the timeframe by about 8 months.

I have always been a fan of the PowerPC – I was amazed how much power IBM could squeeze out of this thing. I am working at a Sun shop, and Sun has needed more than twice as many CPUs in the past to outperform an IBM PowerPC box. IBM pioneered dual-core chips and multi-chip modules with its POWER4 and POWER5 architectures. (Dual core chips have been available in the x86 world for less than two weeks.)

In comparison, the only processor innovation at Intel in the last couple of years, the Itanium with its EPIC architecture, was a monumental flop. As regards processors for desktops and workstations, Intel had the be dragged screaming and kicking into the 64 bit world by the un-anticipated success of AMD’s Opteron processor. And even with Intel’s version of the x86-64 architecture (called EM64T), the Opteron has the better architecture, especially as regards multi-processor configurations.

What does this mean for Apple? At the surface, not much. Apple products will have the same design, the same manufacturing quality, and the same ease of use, regardless of whether they are powered by an IBM processor or an Intel processor. But for the more technical audience, they will lose a lot of their appeal – and in the long run, I expect that this will influence the typical home users as well. The slogans will no longer be “Think different” and “Computers for the rest of us", but “Think almost the same” and “Computers for those who want a prettier box for their living room".

It is interesting to note that Steve Jobs pulled a similar trick once before, when porting the NeXTStep operating system from its original 68k platform to x86 (yes), SPARC and HP-PA. NeXT was a company similar to Apple, in that it was a combined software and hardware manufacturer. Their innovative software (a modern Unix running on a Mach microkernel, the Objective-C language) combined with forward-looking hardware (the NeXT Cube, optical drives) were legendary. But the commoditization of the hardware platform eventually led to the demise of NeXT and the sale of the company to Apple, which reused large parts of NeXT’s technology to create MacOS X.

Another precedent is SGI’s brief flirt with x86 processors for workstations that served no purpose but to accelerate the demise of the company. Nowadays, SGI is producing MIPS R16000 and Itanium systems, but no x86 systems anymore. SGI’s x86 system were regarded as nothing but a gimmick, the usual reaction was “Why should I buy SGI to get the same processor as a Dell box for twice the prize?”

As for me, I am not very deeply entrenched in MacOS X as an operating system. Most of the apps I use are cross-platform, and the few that are not are easily replaced. I bought my PowerBook because it was the only real Unix notebook on the market at that time. I am quite happy with MacOS X since it runs all my required applications, and allows me to develop code that will easily run on Unix-like operating systems. But in the future, I will take a good, long look at Apple’s offerings and think about whether Apple still provides a significant advantage over an Intel notebook running Linux.

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