Friday, June 24, 2005

Inside Apple's Intel-based Dev Transition Kit

AppleInsider has posted the specs for Apple's Intel-based developer transition kit. This is a prototype Intel-based Macintosh system, Intel version of Mac OS X 10.4, developer tools and documentation. (The tools and documentation are also available as a free download.)

I won't repeat the article's description of the specs, but it is worth noting that this system looks and feels very much like a generic PC.

This should come as no surprise, however. Jobs had already said that Apple was developing Intel versions of Mac OS X for five years. They were obviously doing it on generic PC hardware, since it would be prohibitively expensive to design (and keep current) new systems that never get sold to the public.

This, however, does not mean that the Intel Macs that will be sold next year will be generic PC's. As a matter of fact, I would expect that they will not be. At least the ROM code will be different enough to fool non-engineers. Over the past 5 years, Apple has introduced many features in their Macs that Mac users have come to expect, including:

  • Target disk mode
  • FireWire (400-speed on all systems, 000-speed on high-end systems)
  • The ability to boot the system from FireWire (and USB) drives
  • SuperDrives available on all systems, standard on some
  • AirPort (WiFi) available on all systems, standard on some
  • BlueTooth available on all systems, standard on some
  • Unique cooling systems that are (usually) very quiet
Apple will have to provide all of these on any new Macs, whether Intel or PPC based. The fact that the developer transition kit systems do not have many of these features is a clear sign that these systems will not be what is eventually sold to customers.

Now, it is certainly possible to provide all these features using more-or-less generic PC motherboards, but I suspect that Apple will prefer to use a completely custom board, instead of a generic board that they tweak to add necessary features.

A custom motherboard also makes it easier to prevent Mac OS from booting on generic PC's. Apple can include a unique chip (maybe an I/O controller for the FireWire/AirPort/BlueTooth devices, or a specialized DRM chip) that the OS requires in order to run. This is a lot better than looking for ID strings in the ROM (which can be faked) or specific board configurations (which would require a tweak to MacOS every time a new system is introduced or updated.)

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