Steve Jobs himself said that hell froze over; but even so, as he repeated in a Nov. 5 conference call, Apple won’t switch to Intel Microprocessors. “It’s perfectly technically feasible to port Panther to any processor.. but we’re very happy with PowerPC”, he said. “The G5 is the fastest personal computer in the world… right now we don’t see a compelling need to switch processor families and the stuff that’s in the PowerPC roadmap… is really good.”

Nothe that he didn’t mention Intel explicitly, nor did he use the word platform. Why did our glorious leader feel the need to repeat the obvious? There has always been speculation about Apple migrating to Intel processors, especially while Motorola was responsible for the “megahertz gap” between top-of-the-line Macs and the competition. There actually is a version of Darwin, Apple’s open-source base for Mac OS X, for the Intel platform, and a rumored “Marklar Project” that supposedly keeps an up-to-date full Mac OS X running on top of that version.

I’m emphasizing the difference between “Intel processor” and Intel (or x86, or AMD) platform. Apparently, nearly all speculators thinks those terms are synonyms; they’re not. Beyond the processor itself, the Intel platform also includes support chips, BIOS, and standard peripheral controllers – a standard motherboard, for all practical purposes.

Every now and then, well-known analysts say that Apple’s only hope to survive would be to migrate to the Intel platform. Last March, John C. Dvorak predicted that “Apple Computer Corp. will switch to Intel processors within the next 12 to 18 months… announcing the new architecture in July at the next Macworld Expo would be ideal”. Soon after that, he again predicted that Apple would come out with a dual-architecture Itanium/G5 Mac in early 2004, then later offer Mac OS X for generic Dell/HP/IBM computers. Instead, in July, Apple announced the IBM PowerPC 970-based G5!

Former Apple CEO John Sculley said recently that Apple considered the Intel option in 1992 – when Apple was leaving the 68K architecture – but this was discarded in favor of the PowerPC architecture. Even though Sculley still considers that decision “one of the biggest strategic mistakes that Apple ever made”, it’s clear in hindsight that only the PowerPC had enough capacity to emulate the 68K in software without any performance loss; a decisive factor in easing the platform transition.

Whoever wants Apple to migrate to the Intel platform wants, in essence, to run Mac OS X on a cut-rate PC assembled in some anonymous Far-East factory, or by some hardware geek in his own living room, and of course, also wants to run Linux or Windows on the same machine. The chance of this happening is zero. What would be the consequences of the release of Mac OS X for any generic PC? Apple, of course, would have to close down their computer assembly lines. They’d never be able to compete with someone like Dell on price only; just look what happened to Gateway and dozens of others.

It would be a support nightmare; they’d have to test and consider all possible variations of motherboards, peripherals, displays, BIOS, in other words, all those things that already bedevil PC users today. And finally, they’d have to do battle with Microsoft and their ironclad contracts with hardware vendors. Who would pay US$129 (or even US$49?) for an operating system if, owing to contractual requirements, their PC already came with Windows installed? That’s one of the reasons that the BeOS went under.

Let’s bury the notion of migrating to the Intel platform, and consider the use of the Intel processor itself. Apple could, for the sake of argument, build Macs with motherboards based on a Pentium IV (or Itanium, or Opteron), but with its own architecture. So, it would have Open Firmware instead of a BIOS and no concerns whatsoever about Windows compatibility. It would be a Mac as we know it today, but with different processor and support chips. Mac OS X would be recompiled for this new platform and wouldn’t run on common PCs. This option (and not the first!) is what Steve Jobs discarded in the interview I cited earlier.

The chance of this happening isn’t zero, but very nearly so. What advantages could Apple gain from this option? They might have some price advantages in buying the processors and support chips, perhaps a shorter design time, since Apple wouldn’t have to design their own bus controller. The machines would have to have more complex cooling systems to hold noise down; even iMacs would need several fans, in a G5-like scheme. iBooks and PowerBooks would probably be a little larger.

But in terms of performance, I’d bet that there would be a sizable disadvantage. Why? There’s an obvious answer: AltiVec. (Steve Jobs mentioned this precise point last year, in fact.) Not for nothing Apple now has its whole product line based on G4 and G5 CPUs, all of which have AltiVec built in; part of the noticeable speed increase seen between Mac OS X 10.0 and 10.3 can be credited to the gradual optimization of basic OS routines with AltiVec. Many people mistakenly believe that this PowerPC section is restricted to multimedia applications; far from the truth. AltiVec also has specialized instructions for data pre-caching, as well as for high-bandwidth data conversion and movement. And of course, Quartz Extreme itself needs AltiVec’s pixel conversion and vector instructions to implement Mac OS X’s visual subtleties. Only Microsoft would benefit from an Intel processor, as their Virtual PC emulator would then run at native speeds.

Together with these arguments, consider the excellent roadmap of the PowerPC architecture, with IBM widely adopting the G5 (970) and its successors, and it’s easy to see that Steve Jobs is right – there’s no compelling reason to switch. So, why does Apple still maintain the x86 version of Darwin, as well as the fabled “Marklar Project”? That’s because this helps finding bugs which might otherwise be masked by the processor architecture, and to simplify future architectural changes. For instance, without these precautions, the recent release of the G5 machines, with their 64-bit memory addresses, would no doubt have been delayed for several months.

Despite Jobs’ repeated denials, we can be sure that the “Mac Intel Inside” rumors won’t die; they tickle the fancy of PC users and are the kind of “too good to be checked” items that certain journalists love so much.

(This is a somewhat edited and updated version of my “Ombudsmac” column for issue #114 of Macmania magazine.)