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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 Power Macintosh was sold in 1994.  It was 2006 when Apple stopped production of PowerPC-based Macs, but as a chip the PowerPC is still being used today.  So why 1993 and 2009?


I chose 1993 as the start date, since that is when the first PowerPC development tools became available for the Macintosh consumer.  (I refer to the beta release of Metrowerks' offering, not that God-awful cross-compiling strategy that Apple was using at the time.)  I pick Snow Leopard's release as the PowerPC's end, as the current 10.5 OS still supports the G4 and G5 processors (whereas 10.6 does not).


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


Apple's transition from 68K to PowerPC was an amazing success.  If you think Apple's recent transition from PowerPC to Intel was seamless, then you need to go back in time by a decade to see was seamless really is.  The 68K emulator 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 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 was running faster than any previously sold 68K Mac.  The Rosetta emulator on Intel is not too bad, but a high end G5 still smokes it, even three year later.


Users on PowerMacs in those days 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 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.  Symantec, owners of Think Pascal and Think C, the dominant developer tools provider at the time, had no interest in investing in this new processor.  Apple's tool were too high end for the casual developer.  That might have been the end of it until ...


In walks Metrowerks, with what would be called CodeWarrior, a development environment that was simple to use and allowed users to select their choice of programming languages (Pascal, C or C++) and 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 erly 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.


The successful birth of the PowerPC platform was strongly thanks to the birth of CodeWarrior.  Ironically, the death of the PowerPC was also the cause of 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 601 processor ran at 60 MHz or faster, but before too long speeds grew ever faster, with the PowerPC G4 running at 1.5 GHz and faster.  However, these AIM processors began to lag behind their Intel equivalents with time.  Apple had always prided themselves in being faster than their Windows rivals, but found themselves falling behind.


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 is that IBM would be able to keep up with Intel whereas AIM hadn't.  As it turned out, IBM failed to deliver on its promises as well.  At the 2003 WWDC, Steve Jobs had promised a 3 GHz G5 system by the following year.  At the 2004 WWDC, Jobs had to eat his words, and was uncharacteristically sheepish about publicly failing to meet his commitment.  It would be there for 2005 "or else".


"Or Else" happens


I can only imagine what the back room discussions at IBM were like in 2004.  Steve Jobs can threaten all he wants, but he just made a big transition to their G5 processor, and what was he going to do now?  What choice did he have but wait?  What's the alternative, switch to Intel?  I'm sure there were plenty of snickers then.


Say what you want about Steve Jobs, but don't piss him 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.  IBM invested $3 Billion in this venture, with Apple being its primary customer.  They broke their commitment to keep up, and they ended up with a very expensive lesson learned.


The rest is history.  Apple announces its transition to Intel at the 2005 WWDC.  At the 2006 WWDC, the final PowerPC-based Macs are discontinued.  One year, and Apple is out of the PowerPC hardware business.  However, the installed based in 2006 was still heavily PowerPC-based, which is why the 10.5 Leopard OS (highlighted at the 2006 and 2007 WWDC's) needed to run on both PowerPC and Intel based Macs.  However, that is not the case today.  When Snow Leopard is released, it will have been more than three years since the discontinuation of PowerPC-based Macs.  Three years is a long time.  It seemed pointless to Apple to continue to support these old machines with 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 these machines are still running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger.  10.5 Leopard ran a bit sluggish on all but the fastest of G5's, so the transition was not so compelling.  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 clicked 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.


However, those who have already made the jump to Intel-based Macs, 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 had over 10.5 was 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 (an 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 on for nearly a week), and an old Power Mac G4 upstairs I use 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, even if such delaying 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 ... 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: