Apple on PowerPC... and Intel chips


This article first appeared in The Independent on April 10 2000. It is © The Independent.

Technology Editor

Late last week, Apple Computer released an operating system product that runs on PowerPC chips. And also Intel chips. Intriguing, isn't it, that the company which has from its inception used Motorola processors should be writing software to run on the chips that normally run Windows - and, increasingly, Linux.

What it might mean is that in a few years from now you'll be able to buy PCs which run Apple's next-generation operating system, MacOS X. You might even be able to buy just the operating system and run it on your present PC.

More likely, you could buy an iMac in the future and discover somewhere in the small print that it had an Intel or AMD chip powering it, rather than a Motorola/IBM PowerPC chip. Not that you'd notice any difference.

For a moment let's leave the question of "Why?" and deal with the question of "How?" The product released last week is Darwin 1.0, and Apple calls it the "operating system core" of MacOS X, due for release (on PowerPC chips) later this summer. [It turned out to be March 2001, though the beta came out at the end of 2000 - CA, in retrospect]

Darwin is Apple's venture into a limited form of open-source development. It's not as open as Linux, where everyone gets to see all the source code [actually, it is - CA, 2005]; nor as closed as Windows or the present Apple OS, where developers are just told what "applications programming interfaces" - the parts of the OS that their programs will interact with - are available. Darwin lies somewhere in between: the wider Net community offers some suggestions on development, but the hard work is all brought together at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino in Silicon Valley.

MacOS X pulls together the work Apple has done over the past 16 years developing its graphical operating system for Motorola-made chips with that of NeXT, the computer company it bought in 1997 (in the process acquiring Steve Jobs, who rapidly displaced the then-chief executive Gil Amelio). NeXT ran on Intel and Motorola chips, with a Unix-like "kernel" [Well, it is a Unix: FreeBSD with the Mach kernel written by Avie Tevinian, now chief software architect at Apple - CA]. MacOS X is more like Unix than many people would like to admit. But that gives it the flexibility to be transported to other chips.

It was at the end of March that Wifredo Sanchez, an Apple software developer, posted a little note on the Apple Darwin bulletin board saying "Wednesday - the whole thing compiled for the first time for both PowerPC and Intel." A trifle shy, maybe, but there were probably cheers in the boardroom.

Why? Ah yes, the big question. It's not that Apple is looking to license its operating system to PC makers. "Cloning" on Motorola-based machines almost killed Apple off, and Steve Job stopped it as soon as he took over.

But Apple has problems. In April last year rumours began circulating saying that Intel was "courting" Apple. IBM and Motorola - who design and make the PowerPC chip - had begun arguing about the future. Motorola reckons the PowerPC can't win in the PC market, and wants to focus on the "embedded system" (in cars and household items like set-top boxes) market. IBM reckons it can flourish in the server market. Disagreement has hurt the supply chain, especially of top-end PowerPC chips: when those stuttered last year, it caused Apple some financial woes.

So if Apple could get MacOS X to run on Intel chips, it could solve at least some of its supply hassles at a stroke. The Intel version would initially lag behind the PowerPC one, but putting more resources in could solve that.

Apple notes though that to properly bring Darwin, and ultimately OS X, to Intel chips it requires work on "drivers" - the software which gets the operating system to talk to printers, keyboards, mice, and all the other peripherals - and "platform support", a rather hazier concept which includes making the code use the processor efficiently. (Linux has a similar problem with lack of device drivers.)

The result of that little posting by Sanchez is probably years away. But you can buy Apple's operating system off-the-shelf today; trouble is it won't run on a PC. But if MacOS XI (say) is developed to run on all sorts of chips, why shouldn't you install it on your PC?

For more see (Press release) (In-depth explanation) (General information about Darwin)