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Mac with chip by Intel could stay cool as it works faster


HOW DO you think members of a congregation would feel if their minister stood up one Sunday and announced that he was embracing Satan?

No different from the way many Apple customers felt this week when CEO Steve Jobs told the company's most faithful acolytes - the folks who develop its software - that future versions of the Macintosh operating system would run on Intel processors. And with that, he tried to slap a bear hug on Intel's CEO, Paul Otellini.

Jobs has, of course, spent years trashing Intel's processors as slow, unwieldy, underperforming pieces of electronic detritus better suited to running a dishwasher than a computer.

And he's spent just as many years telling Mac owners how hip and smart and cool they are for owning computers that run on "Pentium toasting" PowerPC chips instead of Intel junk.

Does this mean Apple fans can expect the next generation of Macs to be slower, uglier and and far more prosaic than their current machines? If they believed Jobs' anti-Intel ranting in the first place, that's what they deserve. But my prediction is that the first fruits of the partnership will be a Pentium-based laptop that finally puts some pop back into Apple's Powerbook line.

This is critical for Apple. Last month, a market survey found that laptops were outselling desktop computers for the first time. And many are as powerful as the desktop PCs they're replacing.

Apple has never been able to cram its high-end, G5 PowerPC processor into laptops because the chip, made by IBM, runs too hot and uses too much power. Intel, on the other hand, has developed a new line of mobile Pentium M processors that pack plenty of punch but conserve power and don't generate much heat.

Switching to Intel hardware could help Apple users on the desktop, too. The G5 requires an expensive water cooling system in addition to the usual fans. Intel's current Pentium 4 line produces impressive clock speeds without the extra cooling hardware. That could make new Macs cheaper, a key to expanding the company's market share.

(My prediction: Apple will keep its prices up and settle for making more money in its current niche, about 2.5 percent of the market. History has shown that Mac fans will pay for the right to be cool.)

Equally attractive to Apple is Intel's new line of dual-core Pentium chips, which are just making their way onto Windows gamers' desktops.

Instead of trying to cram more transistors into a single, higher speed processor, Intel is packaging two somewhat slower processor cores on a single wafer. This arrangement is particularly good for multitasking - for example, rendering video in the background while doing something else in the foreground.

It's also perfect for multithreading software, which can execute two lines of instructions at once, such as Adobe Photoshop. And guess what? These are precisely the jobs that high-end Mac users like to do.

Yes, it will be hard for hard-core Apple fans to get used to the idea that Intel processors won't wash away the Mac cachet. But the truth of the matter is that operating systems are much less tied to specific hardware than they were a decade or more ago.

To understand why, it helps to know a bit about the Mac operating system - and other operating systems, including Windows and Linux. The OS is the underlying software that makes your computer run when you turn it on. It identifies your hardware, organizes the files on your disk drive, and manages communication with your keyboard, mouse, monitor, modem and everything else attached to your computer, including you.

The OS launches the application programs you run every day. At the user level, it determines the look and feel of your computer: the icons you see on the screen, how the computer reacts when you drag them around with a mouse or click on them, the way menus pop up or drop down, the way you search for and display your files, and so on.

Programmers typically wrote operating systems for a particular microprocessor because it was easier to produce faster code. In the early years, Apple kept a key part of the Mac operating system locked up in a read-only memory chip inside the computer, one of the ways it kept clone makers at bay.

That has been changing over the years. The Unix operating system, and its open source offspring, Linux, run on a variety of processors, including PowerPC chips and Intel processors. In fact, OS X, the latest version of the Mac operating system, runs on top of a Unix OS. When he announced the switch to Intel, Jobs admitted that Apple has been secretly compiling each new version of the Mac system on Intel processors for five years, making the ultimate change much easier.

One question for consumers is how many software developers will stick with Apple through the change. And Apple runs a big risk that sales of current PowerPC Macs will nose-dive as customers wait for the new Intel-based models.

The company has a software developer's kit that will make it easier for programmers to migrate software to the Intel processor, but many applications will still need substantial rewriting. That's an expensive proposition for 2.5 percent of the desktop market.

Users who buy new MacIntel machines next year will be able to run their current OS X software through the use of a translator program called Rosetta. But it's not likely to run as fast as it does on current Macs, particularly G5s.

Although it's not entirely clear, current Mac owners who run old OS 9 versions of Mac software under the "classic" mode of Mac's OS X are unlikely to be able to do so on the new Pentium hardware. Eventually, most Mac owners will wind up buying Intel-specific versions of their current software.

One thing you won't be able to do is run the Mac operating system on hardware designed for Windows. Jobs hasn't said how Apple will do it, but you can bet the company will build in plenty of hardware and software locks. Unlike most Windows PC makers in this commodity market, Apple has always maintained high profit margins on its hardware.

But hackers will undoubtedly have fun trying. And there's no reason buyers of Intel-based Macs can't run Microsoft Windows on their new machines, too.

But why would they want to?

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