The Minority Report: Macworld predictions

'Mactels' to arrive six months ahead of schedule?
Written by Seb Janacek, Contributor

'Mactels' to arrive six months ahead of schedule?

With Macworld looming next week, Seb Janacek comments on the rampant speculation that Apple is poised to launch the first of its next generation Intel-powered Macs - and other hints of what to expect.

During his keynote speech at the Worldwide Developer Conference in June 2005, Steve Jobs announced that the Macintosh computer would stop running on PowerPC chips and start using Intel microprocessors.

After conference attendees climbed gingerly back onto the chairs they'd just fallen off, they heard the Apple CEO add that the first fruits of the partnership with the chip giant would arrive in the middle of 2006, with all Macs running Intel inside by the end of 2007.

The news took most Mac watchers (at least those honest enough to admit it) by surprise. After all, many of Apple's marketing campaigns of the 90s spent a considerable amount of time and money belittling the Pentium processor range and setting fire to its engineers (in its ads, not literally).

The move to Intel was all very exciting for lots of Mac users and very upsetting for lots of others, depending on which side of the ideological fence you happen to reside on.

At the time of the announcement, mid-2006 represented the next new chapter for the Mac, while merchants predicted drops in Mac sales as new buyers held off for the faster machines.

Now it seems increasingly likely that Jobs will spring another surprise at next week's Macworld Expo in San Francisco with the unveiling of the first Intel-powered Macs - around six months ahead of the promised schedule.

Rumour sites, the Mac-related blogosphere and mainstream technology press have been all agog in recent weeks with expectation and reports about the imminent arrival of the first 'Mactels', as they have already been dubbed.

The timing of Macworld also coincides rather neatly with the release this week of Intel's latest range of mobile processors, Yonah.

By unveiling the first Mactels some six months ahead of schedule, the company will be hoping to avoid that predicted drop-off in sales as customers wait in anticipation for faster chips.

It would also allow Jobs who, more than any other tech executive, loves to surprise not only his actual audience at keynotes but also his extended audience, the industry as a whole.

If the first Mactel is poised for the Jobs keynote treatment next week, the big question is which computer might be the first recipient of an Intel chip.

The likelihood is that Apple's consumer range will be first, with the iBook rather than the already amply powered iMac the most likely contender for a new chip and case upgrade.

The most compelling argument for putting Intel inside its consumer machines first is that while Mac OS X has long been capable of running on both PowerPC and Intel architectures, as Jobs confessed in June 2005, software and applications from third-party developers would not.

To get around this somewhat trifling problem, the Apple CEO unveiled a rather neat little bit of technology called Rosetta, a dynamic code translating emulator that will allow Mac software compiled for the PowerPC platform to run on Intel-powered Macs - albeit with a drop in performance.

While this performance drop will unlikely be much of a sticking point for the average user interested mainly in standard consumer fare such as emailing, word processing and surfing the net, it would be a significant irritant to power users and professionals dealing with high-end video editing tools and working with staggeringly large Photoshop files.

'Pro' applications - such as the Adobe Creative Suite, the Macromedia web publishing tools and DTP stalwart Quark XPress - will need considerable revision and recompiling.

Even Jobs admitted the switch to Intel would be a bit of a dog for some of its key software developer partners. Those partners agree.

In a recent interview with silicon.com, Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen admitted that recoding the company's software would be a headache.

"The challenging part will be the switch. It will take coding and compiling time - and that's work," he told silicon.com in November.

Another Macworld keynote possibility, which has gotten a lot of people very excited in recent weeks, is the prospect of an Intel-powered PowerBook - the company's pro-laptop and in many ways its flagship computer.

In Apple's traditional processor upgrade roadmap, the PowerBook was due a G5 update before the iMac got one back in August 2004. However, the heat generated by the G5 chip is considerable and restricted its use in a slim-line laptop computer.

Throughout message boards and the blogosphere, the G5 PowerBook was transformed into a creature of mythical proportions, somewhat like a unicorn or the Loch Ness Monster - although given the challenges faced by Apple's laptop engineers in getting the G5 chip into a small enclosure without a fan, a unicorn with a considerable thermal cooling problem.

While the PowerBook is due a significant processor upgrade soon, power-hungry road warriors can always keep their fingers crossed for next week's announcement - but it's a bit of a long-shot.

One thing for certain is that it won't be the high-end PowerMac range so beloved by creative professionals and design studios everywhere that becomes the first Mactel. Insider reports claim Intel will not only supply the chip for the high-end machine but also design the motherboard, which will take time.

The final possibility (barring anything really leftfield) is the appearance by that other mainstay of Apple rumour sites, a home media centre housed inside a Mac mini.

A lot of people have been getting excited for a long time about the prospect of an Apple-designed digital hub for the living room.

The Intel partnership added fuel to this speculation, given that the chip giant has long been wooing movie studio executives with the video capability of its chipsets.

Meanwhile, the appearance of Apple's Front Row media browsing software in October 2005 seems to suggest the company is moving in this direction. Front Row allows users to browse movies, DVDs, pictures, music and other media on an iMac using a diminutive remote control.

As snazzy as the software is, it doesn't seem to quite sit right on an iMac, which is neither a living room centrepiece nor capable of showing TV shows without a separate receiver. The software seems primed for a device other than a home computer.

If the Mactel rumours turn out to be true, it'll represent a real coup by the company as it seeks to sustain unit sales during a period of massive and risky transition.

The real burning question is whether the sleek white-and-aluminium Apple enclosures will be festooned with little Intel Inside stickers.

If they are, expect the crowd to take to the stage - and Jobs to escape in a helicopter.

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