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photo Why Apple hasn't used Intel processors before: Part III
Two Roads, One Destiny
photo In 1993, Apple had a large installed hardware base and a firm transition plan to PowerPC. At the same time NeXT, while having made similar plans to move to PowerPC, abruptly decided to leave the hardware market. NeXT lacked both Apple's installed base and any rosy prospects for significant new hardware sales.

Abandoning both their existing 68040 based computers and their work already in progress on new PowerPC hardware, NeXT instead reinvented itself as a software company. They would now exclusively sell their NeXTSTEP operating system to run on the computers they had already sold, as well as a new version of the operating system written for standard PCs.

Unlike Apple, NeXT could move to Intel because NeXTSTEP's higher level frameworks were already processor agnostic. The core OS in NeXTSTEP was a combination of Mach and BSD, and both were already running on the x86. So NeXT had both the technical capacity to move their OS to Intel PCs, and a compelling reason to do so: NeXT's hardware sales were in trouble, and the company hoped that the technical superiority of NeXTSTEP would be an attractive alternative to PC users running Windows.

For the next four years, Apple and NeXT would follow very different paths before eventually merging. Both paths set in place events that would result in Apple current transition to Intel. NeXT's experience in creating a cross platform operating system, and discovery of how difficult it turned out to actually sell it, would later be of enormous benefit to Apple. Apple's own path of transitioning the Mac OS to PowerPC would provide complementary experience that, after merging with NeXT, would enable Apple for the first time to even consider a move to Intel.

This turned out to be critically important because as processor development became increasingly complex, maintaining a competitive, independent architecture for desktop computers next to the PC's x86 became increasingly difficult and impractical. As well, the value of being on different hardware eventually evaporated. Had Apple not been able to move to Intel a decade later, they would have few other options, for reasons that only become obvious later.

So, throughout Apple's existence, there has simply never been both a reason and opportunity to use Intel processors. Intel's earliest chips were inferior to what Apple and the rest of the 16/32 bit computing world was using, and just when PCs began to catch up, an entirely new PowerPC platform promising far more potential emerged. At no point in between could Apple have moved their operating system to new hardware while ensuring third party software would follow.
photo Examining the details of Apple's PowerPC transition is useful considering in how well Apple can be expected to handle the transition to Intel.

Stay tuned for:

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Will Intel Macs run Windows?
How Apple's move to Intel will not be like PowerPC
Meanwhile, back at Intel: ten years of progress


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