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Daniel Eran

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photo Three Strikes: Part III
Much Ado About Intel

The combination of Microsoft Windows running on PCs with Intel processors created a industry referred to as 'Wintel,' a moniker neither company has ever liked. From the release of the Macintosh until the move to PowerPC, a decade of obvious superiority kept Macs from being directly compared to Wintel PCs.

PC users displayed disdain for the expensive hardware and the simple 'toy' graphic interface of the Mac, and Mac users looked at PCs as clumsy, glorified calculators running an arcane and counterintuitive text based interface. Then, just as Apple began the move to PowerPC, the introduction of Windows 95 suddenly negated huge swaths of the Mac's perceived differentiating features.

Almost immediately, tech writers jumped on a bandwagon that suggested that a) Microsoft had caught up and surpassed the Macintosh experience, b) what little difference was left would be infeasible for Apple to maintain on a independent platform of unique hardware, and c) Apple's continued existence could only happen if it ported the Mac OS to run on PCs.

Of course, they were wrong on all counts, but the idea of Apple moving to a PC architecture continued to be held by most industry wags as Apple's last best hope for survival and relevance.
photo Apple had already experimented with porting System 7 to run on PCs, but scrapped the plan. Earlier, when NeXT had moved from 68040 processors to Intel, they reworked their operating system to allow it to run on a variety of platforms, including Sun SPARC, HP's PA-RISC and, internally, the PowerPC. This was largely possible because NeXT's software was written in high level C and its applications were written to high level frameworks that were already platform independent by design.
However, when Apple began porting System 7 from the 68040 to the PowerPC, their OS actually became tied even closer to specific hardware. Much of the Mac's software and operating system was written in low level 68k assembly, in order to achieve decent performance on its original hardware; NeXT had the luxury of being written from a clean slate for more powerful hardware from its origination. Apple had to create emulation technology that allowed the existing 68k code base to work on the new PowerPC processors. A minority of System 7 was actually rewritten to be PowerPC native, so the Mac OS was now tied to hardware that could run the 68k core software in emulation. PowerPC could do this quite well, while the x86 architecture could not.

Over the next decade, this problem was further complicated because new Mac software was written to take advantage of features native to the PowerPC. So the possibility of a transition to Intel actually became an even more unlikely, because while the x86 PC could not run 68k code in emulations well, it was even worse at emulating the PowerPC. Wags insisting that x86 was Apple's only hope simply didn't know what they were talking about.

The NeXT operating system Apple acquired in the last week of 1996 had already been running on Intel for four years, so suddenly Apple now had an OS that ran on PCs. In addition to NeXTSTEP for Intel, NeXT already had parts of their OS running on PowerPC internally. If there had been a ready market for NeXTSTEP, Apple would have been able to begin selling it across both platforms right then. There wasn't however. Just as PC users in general had not been interested in installing NeXTSTEP on their Windows PCs, most Mac users were not interested in replacing System 7 with NeXTSTEP and buying all new software.

Part IV > Putting the Mac in Mac OS X


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