It’s like a Zen koan. If a PC runs Mac OS X, does it become a Mac? If a Mac runs OS X on an Intel processor, is it a PC? Our philosophy of technology is about to go through a period of flux, while we get to grips with the new order.

Intel is coming to the Mac, and it will throw into turmoil how we feel about a lot of things. We’re all emotional about our Macs. I don’t mean we’re literally in love with our Macs, though some might be (See “Cult of Mac,” Macworld, Expo 2004 issue) – but emotional on some level, like people get emotional about football or art. Changing something like football team ownership, or when Munch’s “The Scream” was stolen, makes people feel uncomfortable.

The processor is often talked of in terms of being the brain, the heart, or even the soul of a computer. The new Macs, if they are even to be called Macs, will have had a heart transplant. There are some people that believe transplant recipients can also receive characteristics and habits of the donor through “cellular memory”. It’s a bit hocus-pocus, but what if your Mac took on some the characteristics of a Wintel PC? Subtle things like the occasional blue screen of death, or perhaps a virus might become more common. Hell, we might even see a two-button Apple mouse.

Heart of the matter
Of course cellular memory is nonsense, in transplants at least. But it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that your Macintel will feel different. The alien double heart of the Pentium D has a dual core, like two processors lashed together. Steve Jobs promised us faster machines, and only the Intel roadmap could live up to that promise long term. If alien means advanced technology that mere humans couldn’t imagine, then I for one welcome our new alien overlords.

For younger readers or newly switched PC users, this embracing of a new and odd way of working may seem peculiar. But for old hands like myself, change is good, and Apple means constant change. I’ve lived through massive changes: System 6 to System 7, 680x0 processors to PowerPC, OS 9 to OS X... It was often traumatic (though it gets easier with practice), but we all lived through it and found things radically improved. The thing about Apple is that it has no loyalty to technology other than a commitment to the best. If Amstrad came up with a superior processor technology I have no doubt that Apple would move to Amstrad processors.

Hell, if Longhorn turned out to be vastly superior to OS X and there was no obvious way to catch up, I bet Steve would give serious thought to supporting it on a Mac.

We, as users, should be emotionally attached to having the best hardware, and the best operating system. Imagine if 15 years ago somebody predicted that people would be shocked and upset to be moving away from an IBM processor in a Mac. At the time IBM was the enemy – until it came up with the best offer for processing power.

It’s difficult not to get emotional about things we care about. Why wouldn’t we care about something many of us spend many hours a day gazing at, touching and listening to? When the first iMacs arrived, they definitely touched an emotional nerve: everybody loved them. But after a while Apple redesigned the iMac and came up with the iMac G4, with its anglepoise LCD screen. Just as people got used to the iMac G4, then Apple released the iMac G5. Each change took a little getting used to, and while we may look back fondly at the candy coloured iMacs, nobody would prefer one to a shiny new G5 model.

If there’s one thing that worries me slightly about the move to Intel processors it’s the time scale. It will be a full year before Intel processors will be introduced to the low-end Macs, and another year before the high-end Macs get the transplant. It concerns me because people might be tempted to wait for two years before buying a new Mac. That could be a disaster for Apple’s computer sales, and it will only get worse as time goes on.

For my money, which was being saved for the dual-3GHz G5, I’ll be seriously thinking about buying a G5 now. That way I have two years of waiting for the Intel Mac, plus perhaps another year of waiting for it to bed in and make sure it works properly. I can’t last those two or three years on my current G4 tower. So for now, it looks like Apple may get a boost in desktop sales, at least from me. But I wonder how many people will be buying professional machines this time next year.

Apple is playing a dangerous game, but it’s a game that it’s well practiced at; a game it’s very good at. Most other IT companies would balk at messing with the emotions of its users to this extent: they’d shy away from pre-announcing superior products two years in advance of them being available. Most companies don’t have the experience that Apple has at doing just those things.

By all means get emotional about losing the IBM G5 processors – shed a tear if you must. But remember that it was never the company that Apple cared about it was the technology. And when your Mac arrives with the alien heart of an Intel chip in it, it isn’t about the Intel brand, its blue men, its jingle, or anything else. It is because it is the best technology Apple can find, and as soon as there’s something better, Apple will be there. MW