What Intel-based Macs Mean for CIOs

Apple’s recent release of machines loaded with Intel processors is the third revolutionary change in its Macintosh-era history. The first, back in the 1990s, was the move from Motorola 68000-based chips to the speedier PowerPC line. Then, in 2001, Macintosh gave up the antiquated OS 9 system for the speedier Unix-based OS X. Both of these transitions were reasonably smooth; there were some bumps along the way, of course, but Apple’s solutions to problems that arose—like making it possible to run the OS 9 (Classic) environment in OS X, thereby allowing older applications to run at full speed, for example—were largely effective. These days, Apple is reinventing its entire hardware architecture, putting the same type of chip that powers Windows PCs its entire line of computers. It’s a momentous undertaking.

Dos and Don’ts

The biggest hoopla around these new Intel-based Macs is about what they do and don’t do. They do run most OS X software without forcing users to make any changes in how they use their computers. And the new machines run fast, with a significant speed improvement over Apple’s previous Power PC-based lineup.

The real buzz, however, is that with the move to an Intel-based architecture, Apple has opened the door to something some users have sought for years: being able to run Microsoft Windows software at full speed on a Mac. While it's true that you can do just about anything you want on a Mac or a PC, many specific pieces of software are PC-only, primarily because of Windows’s larger market share. Until now, if a school wanted to run PC-only software, it had to either buy PCs or purchase software for Macs that enabled them to emulate PC software—an expensive and cumbersome solution.

With the release of Intel-based Macs, the hot question from day one has been whether or not they could be made to run Windows software natively. When OnMac.net announced a nearly $14,000 prize for the first person to prove it was possible, it didn't take long for a breakthrough to occur. The process uncovered in the OnMac.net contest isn't for the faint of heart, but I got it to work using a loaner machine from Apple.

All of this changed last week, when Apple unexpectedly released the Beta version of Boot Camp, a dual boot enabler that greatly simplifies the process of running Windows applications and more important, offers Apple’s official blessing for Windows on Mac. Apple has stated that dual-boot capability will be built into Leopard, the next major release of its OS X operating system. In addition, at least one third-party developer, Parallels, has already released the beta of a commercial virtualization-based Windows-on-Mac solution that enables users to quickly switch back and forth between Windows and OS X without rebooting, something the Apple solution does not provide. Suddenly, we’ll have one machine that natively runs Mac OS, Windows, and Linux, giving users the best of all possible worlds.

Smooth Transitions

Apple sent me a new Intel-based 20" iMac with a 2GHz Intel Core Duo processor for testing purposes, and while I hope to run a more complete series of speed and compatibility tests, initial results are impressive. The most significant thing about the performance and operation of the iMac is that you'd almost never know that an Intel chip was under the hood. This is a huge accomplishment, effectively making the biggest platform shift in Apple's history into a no-brainer for support staff and users.

Districts will have to carefully consider some aspects of the new Macs, however. The first is the issue of software compatibility. Apple says there are more than twelve thousand applications available in "Universal Binary" format, technology that lets software run natively on older PowerPC Macs and new Intel-based machines (for a list of Universal Binary applications, visit http://guide.apple.com/universal). According to Dave Russell, Apple's director of 1 to 1 initiatives for Apple Education, “It's not just about Apple transitioning our hardware, it's also about developer support, about supporting our customers, many of whom we're finding are anxious to become early adopters [of the new Macs].”

Russell says the move to Intel Macs has been smooth for customers because the operating system and environment look the same as those of a PowerPC-based Mac running OS X. My testing bears this out. Even most older software not yet available in "Universal Binary" format will run on Intel-based Macs, using Apple's Rosetta technology, a translation program that acts as an assistant to help run PowerPC applications. Apple takes great pains to explain that Rosetta is a "translator," not an "emulator." There's no new environment to launch and no user interface changes. With Rosetta, the application just runs normally.

I found the speed of PowerPC applications under Rosetta to be perfectly acceptable for most software—Microsoft Office, Quicken, and a range of other apps ran normally. Processor-intensive applications like Adobe Photoshop, however, are another matter, so schools using graphics-development and video-production applications will want to upgrade to Universal Binary versions as soon as possible. Apple’s iLife and Safari are already available in Universal Binary form. The company's professional-level tools, save for Aperture, are also available as Universal apps, but some applications from Microsoft, Adobe, and others may still be months away. Bottom line: For most apps, Rosetta fills the gap seamlessly.

And Boot Camp? Within one hour of downloading it from Apple, I had Windows XP SP2 running on my iMac at full native speed without a hitch. At the moment, the fastest and most stable Windows workstation in my office is a Mac.

Retire OS 9, Not Hardware

As for old OS 9 applications, they will not be supported on the new Macs. Apple has been trying to urge developers and users of OS 9 applications to make the switch to OS X for about five years now, and this time they're serious. Since many schools still use OS 9 applications, this is a consideration to keep in mind for new Mac purchases. In many if not most cases, OS 9 software has been replaced by an OS X version over the past five years. Apple's stance, according to Russell, is that it’s time to retire Classic and OS 9 applications. He says, "OS X applications are fundamentally more powerful, and Apple wants to encourage ‘21st-century learning’ through use of modern applications.”

But what should a district do with existing hardware? According to Russell, "[Older] PowerPC architecture is not dead in the Apple—the iBook and eMac are still based on PowerPC, and those are extremely viable products this year. Even at the end of our transition those products aren't obsolete or worthless. They're still viable tools in the K–12 environment." It’s true that Macs have traditionally had longer lifecycles than most PCs—I have two PowerPC 8500s circa 1997 that have been upgraded and are useful machines, and some schools are using even older Macs. Few 10-year-old PCs are similarly functional. But the writing is on the wall, and all future Macs will be Intel-based. Ultimately, schools will make the switch.

Future Ready

“If you want to prepare for the future of technology, you should use a Mac today," says Russell, who points out the range of innovations—USB, Firewire, affordable Wi-Fi, wireless mobile labs, legal online music, podcasting, and easy video editing, to name a few—that Apple has made available to the mass market. It is possible that Apple's latest lineup of Intel-based computers may set an entirely new trend: easy-to-use-and-configure desktops and laptops that can run the widest variety of operating systems and software natively and at full speed. Until then, one thing is certain: The new Macs are fast and capable, and offer one of the very best combinations of power, flexibility, and value in educational computing today.

Richard Hoffman is contributing editor of School CIO.