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According to Hoyle...

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: The End of the Line for the PowerPC


August 2009

by Jonathan Hoyle



Next month, Apple will be releasing its next generation operating system: Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, a replacement for its previous Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard.  I had intended this month to review 10.6 (within the confines of Apple's NDA), but found it essentially a repeat of last year's article on Snow Leopard following WWDC '08    Rather than reiterate the same things again, we will wait until its official release, whence I may devote a column to review it fully.  This month, I'd like to talk a little bit about the PowerPC processor, as its reign dies with 10.6.


PowerPC: 1993-2009


One might quibble with the dates here.  The AIM (Apple-IBM-Motorola) alliance created the PowerPC in 1991, and the first Macintosh computer using this processor (the Power Macintosh) was sold in 1994.  Although Apple ceased production of PowerPC-based Macs in 2006, PowerPC chip itself is still being used today in other products.  So why do I use "1993-2009" as the start and end dates in the above paragraph header?


I chose 1993 as the start date, since that is when the first PowerPC development tools became available for the Macintosh consumer.  (I refer more specifically to the beta release of Metrowerks' offering, not that God-awful cross-compiling strategy that Apple was using at the time.)  For the end date, I picked Snow Leopard's release (this year), rather than when Apple stopped producing Power Macs. I did this because the PowerPC is still a significant percentage of the installed base, and the chip is still supported in as far as the fact that the current OS (Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard) still supports the PowerPC G4 and G5 processors. That will end with the arrival of 10.6.


So this is it for the PowerPC processor.  This is not simply a Snow Leopard statement, but an Apple statement in general.  Apple's recently released Final Cut Pro 7 and Logic Studio are Intel-only, despite its running on 10.5 Leopard (a PowerPC-supported operating system).


This should not be terribly surprising news.  After all, it was three years ago this summer that Apple officially killed off the PowerPC line of processors.  And although there are a fair number of G4's and G5's still out there in the field, they are a diminishing breed.


Truly Seamless


This is not Apple's first processor transition. Apple's transition from 68K to PowerPC was an amazing success.  If you think Apple's current transition from PowerPC to Intel was seamless, then you need to go back in time by a decade to see was seamless really was.  The 68K emulator on the Power Macintoshes was fast and extremely versatile.  Although it did not support the 6888x Math co-processor, most anything that ran on a contemporary 68K machine (such as the Centris 610) would also run on a Power Mac.


And not just applications.  Plugins, dynamic libraries, code resources and other programming components can be 68K and run inside a PowerPC-based application.  This is actually one of the significant differences between the 68K/PPC transition and the PPC/Intel transition: plugins and libraries must match precisely the architecture on its hosting OS X app: 32-bit PowerPC, 64-bit PowerPC, 32-bit Intel or 64-bit Intel.


Another difference is performance.  From nearly the beginning, the 68K emulator's speed was quite reasonable.  By the end of the 90's, the 68K emulator on a Power Macintosh was running code faster than that code would on any previously sold 68K Mac.  That's not quite true with PowerPC->Intel. For example, Rosetta emulator on Intel is not too bad, but a high end G5 still smokes it, even three year later.


Users on PowerMacs in the days of the first transition, often did not know if their favorite app was running native PowerPC or was 68K-emulated ... frankly they didn't care.  Why should they?


The Real Hero


Yes, the 68K to PowerPC transition was an amazing success for Apple ... perhaps more successful than it had any right to be.  Apple had been very slow with its development tools, and with no native PowerPC applications, there would be no compelling reason for Mac users to leave their 68K architecture.  The dominant Mac tool providers at the time was Symantec, makers of Think Pascal and Think C, but surprisingly, they had no interest in investing in the new PowerPC processor.  The only other option was Apple itself, but its development tools were too high end for the casual developer.  That might have been the end of it until ...


In walks Metrowerks, with a product that would eventually be given the name CodeWarrior. This development environment was simple to use, allowed users the flexibility to select their choice of front end programming language (Pascal, C or C++), as well as selecting their choice of back end (68K, PowerPC or both).  More than any one single force, Metrowerks saved Apple's bacon and paved the way toward a successful PowerPC platform.  In the late 1990's and early 2000's, Metrowerks CodeWarrior became the dominant development environment, eclipsing Symantec's Think tools and Apple's MPW.  It's hard to imagine what the Mac world would look like today had the PowerPC failed.


Thus, it's no overstatement to say that the success of the PowerPC platform on the Mac, was strongly thanks to the birth of CodeWarrior.  Ironically, the death of the PowerPC was also due to the death of CodeWarrior.  Despite the protests of its user base, Metrowerks sold off its Intel compilation tools in 2005, just weeks before Apple announced its Intel transition, turning CodeWarrior from a monopoly to irrelevant over night.


PowerPC Evolution


The first Power Macintoshes (6100, 7100, 8100) came with System 7.1.2.  System 7 evolved into System 7.5, then Mac OS 8 and 8.1.  From 1994 through 1998, Apple supported its operating systems on both its 68K and PPC platforms.  Then in late 1998, Apple introduced Mac OS 8.5, which dropped support for 68K Macs.  In 1999, Apple introduced Mac OS 9, its final Classic offering, as work began in earnest on Mac OS X.  With Mac OS X (public beta in 2000, released in 2001), Apple ceased support for all pre-Steve Jobs PowerPC processors, requiring the G3 or later processors.


All this time, the PowerPC processor continued to hum along.  The initial PowerPC processor, the 601, ran at 60 MHz, but before too long, speeds continued to grow ever faster, with the PowerPC G4 chip running at 1.5 GHz and faster.  All these chips were created by the AIM consortium. But despite speed and chip improvements, however, these AIM processors were not improving with the same velocity as the chips created by their rival Intel equivalents.  Apple had always prided themselves in being faster than their Windows rivals, but found themselves falling behind.  Apple felt that Motorola was not holding up its end of the AIM bargain.


At the 2003 WWDC, Steve Jobs announced that the Macintosh line will move to a new processor, the PowerPC G5, made not by AIM, but exclusively by IBM.  The expectation was that IBM would be able to keep up with Intel, whereas AIM hadn't.  As it turned out, Apple would be disappointed again, with IBM failing to deliver on its promises as well.  Specifically, Steve Jobs had promised (at the 2003 WWDC) that they would deliver a 3 GHz G5 system by the following year.  Unfortunately, Jobs had to eat his words at the 2004 WWDC, and was uncharacteristically sheepish about publicly failing to meet this commitment.  Steve did not want to be in this position again. There would be a fast PowerPC chip in 2005 ... "or else".


"Or Else" happens


I can only imagine what the back room discussions at IBM were like in 2004:  Yeah sure, Steve Jobs can threaten all he wants, but can he do about it? He just had his Macintosh line make the big transition from the AIM processors to our G5.  What was he going to do now?  What choice did he have but wait?  What's the alternative?  It's not like he's going to switch to Intel.  That would be madness, right?  I'm sure there were plenty of snickers then.


Say what you want about Steve Jobs, but don't piss the guy off.  And definitely don't make him look bad in front of his own developers at WWDC.  IBM called Steve Jobs' "bluff", and paid the price for it.  IBM invested $3 Billion in this G5 venture, with Apple being its primary customer.  When IBM broke its commitment to keep up, and it ended up with a very expensive lesson learned.


The rest, as they say, is history.  Apple announces its transition to Intel at the 2005 WWDC.  At the following year's WWDC, the final PowerPC-based Macs are discontinued.  In only a single year, and Apple was out of the PowerPC hardware business.  But because the installed base in 2006 was still heavily PowerPC, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard (highlighted at the 2006 and 2007 WWDC's) needed to continue to support both PowerPC and Intel-based Macs.  However, that is no longer the case today.  When Snow Leopard is released, it will have been more than three years since the discontinuation of PowerPC-based hardware.  Three years is a long time.  It seemed pointless to Apple to continue to support these old machines in a new OS.


10.6: Not a Big Loss to PowerPC Users


In fairness, 10.6 wouldn't have been of large interest to PowerPC owners anyway.  The reason for this is that many of the existing Power Macintoshes are still running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, and so haven't even moved up to 10.5.  10.5 Leopard runs a bit sluggishly on all but the fastest of G5's, so making the OS upgrade was not so desirable.  Furthermore, moving to 10.5 means no more Classic.  If you had no need for Classic, there was little reason to hang onto your Power Macintosh, and you probably had already transitioned to an Intel Mac over the past four years.  But, if you still hadn't kicked the Classic habit, you had no choice but to hang onto your PowerMac/10.4 system.  10.6 would not have changed that, even had it supported the G5.


For those who have already made the jump to Intel-based Macs though, 10.6 Snow Leopard is a much more compelling proposition.  If you are on 10.5 Leopard (as most Intel-Mac users are), your $29 upgrade fee buys you performance improvements and OS enhancements that will make your computing experience much smoother.  If you are still on 10.4 Tiger, then your costs are no more than the $129 that you would have paid for Leopard, but instead you get Snow Leopard (essentially a better upgrade for the same price).


One of 10.6's advantages that it has over 10.5 is the ability to optimize on a single hardware family.  On 10.5, all its code had to allow for the possibility of running on either PowerPC or Intel; for 10.6, it could rely exclusively on Intel processors.  This makes it easier for the developer targeting 10.6, since no Macs made prior to 2006 would need to be tested.




Soon, references to the PowerPC processor will seem as nostalgic (and as irrelevant) as do references to the 68K family of processors.  As I write this, I still have a PowerBook G4 by my side (shut down, not been open for nearly a week), as well as an old Power Mac G4 upstairs (that I use as exclusively as a server).  I have mostly weened myself off of old Classic applications, and find little reason to go back.  Still, there is a nostalgic side of me that keeps me from getting rid of my G4's entirely, even if such delays causes me to lose whatever profit I might glean from selling now


On my Intel-based Macs, I am looking ever forward, excited to run prerelease versions of Snow Leopard and take advantage of the better performance.  I am ready to say Hello to the future ... while admittedly still hesitant to saying Goodbye to the past ... despite knowing it is only a matter of time.

As someone once told me: All things are only a matter of time.



Coming Up Next Month:  Apple's newest development tools!.  See you in 30!


To see a list of all the According to Hoyle columns, visit: