My Life in Words

Hell hath frozen over

June 7, 2005

Hell has frozen over.

I've never been able to figure out why that phrase carries such a negative connotation.   Isn't this a good thing?   I mean seriously, isn't the end to eternal thermal suffering something desirable?   I would think so, which is why I also do not understand why many in the Mac community are using the term "hell has frozen over" to describe what they see as a negative move by Apple: to drop IBM's PowerPC in favor of Intel processors.  

To say that Apple's relationship with IBM has been strained over the last several years would be putting it mildly.   While the decision was made long ago to sacrifice the clock-speed wars in favor of powerful, efficient processing (and it turned out to be a good decision, initially), the pace of speed increases in the G4 and, more poignantly, the G5 processors has grown frustrating.   Even the author of the comic strip "Foxtrot" couldn't resist poking fun a few years back at the laughably late arrival of the Mac to the 1ghz club.  

But the frustration has been even greater for Apple CEO Steve Jobs, whose promise of a 3ghz PowerMac G5 within a year of the model's introduction (nearly two years ago) has made him look, at best, like the lesser member of the Apple-IBM partnership.   We all know that Steve does not like to look bad.   Add to that the fact that IBM has struggled for a long time to meet the demand that Apple's impressive growth has produced, and that IBM has agreed to supply processors to Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo for their next-generation gaming systems (a move perceived, with some validity, as a slight), and he seems to have been pushed over the proverbial edge.

This move carries with it a whole slew of implications; some are obvious, and some are simply unforeseen.   The biggest for me is that my PowerPC computers will now become legacy machines much sooner than I had thought or hoped.   Just a few days ago the G4 was still going strong as a staple of the Apple line-up, meaning that I could expect seamless application support for my titanium Powerbook for some time yet.   Now that future does not seem so clear.  

The up side here is that Apple and Intel seem to be going to great lengths to keep transitional labor pains low.   PowerPC emulation through "Rosetta" promises to keep PowerPC software running on the new Intel chips just as emulation of the Motorola 680x0 processors helped transition to the PowerPC chips some eleven years ago.   As many have noted though, whether or not this emulation will be fast enough to be considered useable remains to be seen.  

The second major implication that has been talked about is the short-term effect on Apple sales.   Although I have read some speculation that the announcement will cause a rush to buy up the last of the PowerPC machines, the majority of speculators seem to be arguing from the opposite side.   The worry is that consumers who were considering an upgrade now have something new to consider.   If you buy soon, you buy a machine that will most likely come at reduced cost.   However you also buy a machine that will be considered legacy within a year or less.   It has suddenly become impractical to buy a new Mac for the next year or so.  

Steve Jobs has always been a risk-taker though, and in almost every recent example it has paid off, and then some.   The case he made at the Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC) was a convincing one.   Intel can offer Apple everything that IBM (due to either willingness or ability, debatably) could not: a fast, capable processor, production and development levels equal to consumer demand, and a reliable foundation for years to come.   Additionally, since Intel is such a big player, the resources necessary to make the transition smoothly are not as big a concern as they could otherwise be.  

In any case, hell has indeed frozen over.   The company that once burned an Intel mascot in an advertisement will soon be putting those irritating little "Intel Inside" stickers on their computers, not to mention probably running advertisements proclaiming its greatness.   But the sudden frost is a good thing, especially for those frustrated by the stagnation in development in the Macintosh line.   The potential for short-term loss to Apple computer sales is large, as is the potential for transitional headaches, both for end-users and Apple-Intel.   However, the potential for future growth is far greater.   Every transition is painful, and in this case expensive, but future productivity will undoubtedly profit greatly.   I, for one, am not going to waste my time complaining that hell suddenly a bit chilly.   If you want to find me you'll have to grab a sled and catch me on the slopes.

(Note:   More reading on this subject can be found by clicking any of the Apple-related links on the left side of the page.)



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