More blunt thoughts on the x86 Macintosh

I’ve been watching reaction to the Apple announcement. On the one side, there are a lot of long-time Mac fans who have been expressing a kind of unfocused pessimism. Something about the move makes them really unhappy at a subconscious level, but they seem unable to express exactly what.

Then on the other hand, there are lots of people saying “Hey, it’s just a computer, it’ll still run OS X and be pretty and be a Mac even if it has a Pentium 4 inside.” I think that’s not quite true, in a fairly subtle way. To understand why, though, you need to understand the Mac religion.

Apple have been forced to make the move because the desktop CPU marketplace, while still competitive, is only competitive around a single instruction set–the one that has gradually evolved from the original 8086. The x86 instruction set dominates the desktop, in CPUs from VIA, Intel, Transmeta, AMD and others. It’s even somewhat strong in the embedded space. Compiler technology for x86 advances far faster than for any other instruction set.

So let’s be clear: x86 is completely dominant. And it blows. That’s what makes the move so hard for many Mac-heads to accept. The Mac has always been about doing what’s technically right, not what’s most popular.

For instance, I vastly prefer the clean simplicity of the 6502 to the ugliness of the Z80, having written code for both. The 680x0 was a joy to write for compared to the 8086 thru 80486.

Moving up out of the realm of processors, SCSI was clearly superior to IDE. USB was obviously the right thing, even if serial ports and ADB were far more popular and USB peripherals were initially almost impossible to find. Firewire is better in every way than USB 2.0 HiSpeed.

In the software layer, the way the Mac filesystem works is a pain in the ass to write for, but the way the system behaves to the end user as a result is clearly the right way. (Programs don’t break when you move them, files launch to the application you last edited them with, and so on.)

In short, the Mac has always been about picking the best technology and doing what’s right. But now suddenly there’s going to be an x86 CPU in the middle of it all–kludge after kludge piled on top of the original 8086 design. And recall, IBM chose that because it sucked, they didn’t want to choose something that might threaten their real computer systems. Worse, the Mac isn’t even going to be using a leading-edge AMD 64 bit x86 CPU, it’s going to be a 32 bit Intel processor.

Basically, the Mac community is being served a bit of a technical turd sandwich. It may still be the finest ciabatta bread, the freshest pickles and lettuce–but there’s still going to be a turd in the middle, and some of us are having a hard time preparing to swallow it, even though we know it may be necessary.