Apple Made Plans to Switch to Intel Before Jobs Returned

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Apple was planning to switch from PowerPC to Intel processors even before Steve Jobs returned to Apple, according to a technology panel hosted Wednesday evening by The Churchill Club, a Silicon Valley business and technology forum. The discussion, entitled “Steve Jobs: A Legacy of Vision and Leadership,” included an amazing group of former Apple employees and those close to Mr. Jobs, including Bill Atkinson, Jean-Louis Gassée, Andy Hertzfeld, Regis McKenna, Deborah Stapleton, and Larry Tesler.

Churchill Club Steve Jobs Speakers

The Churchill Club’s Guest Speakers

As Forbes notes, one of the interesting things mentioned by the group was that Apple was already thinking about moving from PowerPC to Intel processors even before Steve Jobs re-joined the company during Apple’s acquisition of NeXT in late 1996. As Larry Tesler, Apple’s former VP of Advanced Technology and Chief Scientist, explained:

It was actually one of the reasons that the company decided to acquire NeXT… We had actually tried a few years before to port the MacOS to Intel, but there was so much machine code still there, that to make it be able to run both, it was just really really hard. And so a number of the senior engineers and I got together and we recommended that first we modernize the operating system, and then we try to get it to run on Intel, initially by developing our own in-house operating system which turned out to be one of these projects that just grew and grew and never finished. And when we realized that wouldn’t work we realized we had to acquire an operating system, either BeOS or NeXT and one of the plusses was once we had that we could have the option of making an Intel machine.

The project Mr. Tesler is talking about was known by two names within Apple, Copland and OS 8, and it had its own roots in a project originally codenamed “Pink” within Apple. Pink eventually morphed into a joint project with IBM called Taligent, and when Apple pulled out of Taligent, the portion of the technology it owned turned into Copland.

OK, do you have all that straight? Copland was supposed to be released as Mac OS 8, the successor to Mac OS 7.x, but since it was out of control, then-CEO Gil Amelio killed Copland and bought NeXT, which is what the Churchill Club panel was talking about.

Once Steve Jobs came back, one of his first orders of business was to kill the Mac clone business, and to do so, he pulled a switcheroo on the name of Mac OS 7’s family line. At the time, Apple was working on Mac OS 7.7, and Mr. Jobs (or his team), realized that if Apple released it as “Mac OS 8” instead of “Mac OS 7.7,” the company would be able to slip out from under its licensing agreements with the Mac cloners in one fell swoop, because all of them except Power Computing had a license for “Mac OS 7.x.” So what was shipped as Mac OS 8 was not the same Mac OS 8 that had been planned at Apple for several years under the code name of Copland.

Going back to the processor issue, after the NeXT acquisition, Apple continued to use PowerPC processors, releasing five major versions of the system on the AIM platform. The switch eventually came, however, when Apple announced the transition to Intel at WWDC 2005.

Bryan Chaffin contributed to this article.

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Comments

wab95

I recall some of that history. It was in late 1996 that two of my residents (doctors in training) convinced me to switch to the Mac (I was basically already there - the crash of my HP Aero - my second Window machine to die - and their advice, was the tipping point), which I did, a PowerBook 1400.

One of the points of enthusiasm at that time was the coming release of Copland, or OS 8, which was supposed to be the ‘next great thing’ in OSs. The OS 8 that came out, while an improvement on OS 7.x was a bit of a letdown to some of the Mac cognoscenti.

I rather recall simply being grateful to no longer have to bother with Windows, and was pleased with the system’s comparative performance.

As an aside, I also recall getting one of those clones as a second ‘Mac’, a PowerComputing desktop. While cheaper than Apple’s desktops, I was disappointed with the overall quality (it died shortly after I arrived at my research post in SE Asia - at the age of 6 months). SJ’s decision to kill the clones neither surprised nor disappointed; I had already concluded that they were simply stealing marketshare while not expanding the platform, and were doing so on the cheap.

Stephen Swift

What about Apple’s Star Trek project?  From what I’ve read, there was internal demos of OSes before System 7 running on PCs with the 486 chip.

Mikuro

I’ve heard that the decision to abandon Star Trek was based more on political than technical issues.

wab95

Interesting history about Star Trek, but before my active time on the Mac. I think it had been dead long enough by the time I migrated over that it was no longer being discussed, and likely, at least in part, because all the buzz was about Copland.

What it all shows, however, is that Apple was being then as it is now both proactive and practical about its long term options, and not hostage to an ideal (and demonising the competition of the day), something portions of its support base can learn from.  This augurs well for Apple’s capacity for continued growth and innovation, as something not new, but inherent in its core mode of operations from years past.

archimedes

Apple has a long history of exploring multiple options and hedging its bets - for example ports of System 7 to the x86 and Motorola 88K. Ultimately PowerPC won out. Apple used AT&T’s Hobbit/CRISP chip early in the Newton project, but ARM won out and now owns the mobile world.

Apple created a ridiculous amount of technology, much of which was either abandoned or drastically altered/repurposed, from the late 1980s through the 1990s, including Star Trek, OpenDoc, Newton, Dylan, Pink/Taligent, Kaleida/ScriptX, Copland/NuKernel, A/UX and ANS, MAE, etc., etc..

Did this end when Steve Jobs returned to Apple? Not entirely - Jobs himself mentioned that Apple had developed several products that it decided not to bring to market, at least not in their original form and timeframe. Moreover, x86 versions of Rhapsody and later OS X were built alongside the PowerPC versions for years, enabling Apple to “flip the switch” in 2005. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Apple was running ARM builds of OS X internally. I wouldn’t bet on Apple delivering an ARM-based Mac, but it would certainly help as a comparison with whatever intel can deliver.

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