What does Apple’s promised switch to Intel chips mean for the Mac consumer? We’ve got the answers to your questions.

It was a "Hell-has-finally-frozen-over" moment. In early June, Steve Jobs stood before the most devout of the Mac faithful and told them that Mac hardware will be based on Intel CPUs in the future. Even though rumours of the news had been circulating for a few weeks, the announcement still came as a shock, since Intel is so closely associated with Microsoft.

It's a testament to Jobs' persuasive abilities that the news was accepted with relative calmness by many Mac users and developers. Presumably, all those developers are now working to port their programs to the new Mac architecture.

But what does the news mean for the consumer? Can the shift possibly go without a hitch? We asked some of the questions that spring to mind about the news, and then found out the answers.

Why did Apple do this?

As Jobs said in his presentation, Intel is promising faster, more power-efficient chips than PowerPC maker IBM has delivered.

When will I have to worry about this?

The first Intel-based Macs won't be released for general sale until the second half of next year, and Apple plans to make all Macs Intel-based by the end of 2007. Apple is encouraging its software developers to write programs that run on both types of CPU, so that even if you don't buy a new, Intel-based Mac, you will still be able to run the applications you want.

Eventually, it’s likely that Apple will begin exerting pressure on users to upgrade to the newer technology, just as it did with OS X. It'll start releasing new functions or applications that people really want, but that don't work on the old platform (iTunes is the example that springs to mind).

Whether you're motivated to make the switch depends on a complex set of factors, including whether you were ready to buy a new system anyway, how badly you want or need the new functionality, and how open to change you are. How readily the new platform will be adopted overall is very tough to predict.

Will I have to buy a new Mac?

If everything goes as outlined in Jobs's presentation, you won't have to buy a new Mac until you're ready. Even after the hardware transition is complete, software developers will be releasing products that work on both platforms. It remains to be seen whether these "universal binary" programs will work seamlessly.

Will my old software work on the new Macs?

Intel-based Macs should be able to run software written for PowerPC, just maybe not as fast as they would run natively. So your old software is expected to run. Odds are good, though, that you'd want to update or replace programs that are more than about 18 months old anyway, and then you'd get a version that runs natively on Intel Macs.

Will my old peripherals work on the new Macs?

This is a dodgier proposition. The manufacturers of peripherals will have to provide updated drivers, and peripheral support has been a weak spot in previous Mac OS releases, such as the early versions of OS X. It's an extremely good bet that printers, scanners, and digital cameras that are more than a few years old will be difficult to connect to the new Macs.

Will this mean that Macs get cheaper?

I don't expect that Macs will drop much in price as a result of this switch. Even if there is a greater supply of chips (and Apple did not cite short supply as a reason for moving away from the PowerPC), any price drop due to greater supply is likely to be hidden by high development costs, which will be passed on to buyers.

Will the Mac OS run on a PC, and Windows on a Mac?

The official word from Apple is "no", and Apple isn't likely to license its operating system again – it's much more likely to keep pushing the prices of its own systems down (as it did with the Mac Mini). Keeping control of hardware manufacturing lets Apple control the user experience from end to end, preventing frustrations resulting from incompatibilities. Still, it is intriguing that Dell chairman Michael Dell has said he'd be happy to offer the Mac OS.

Apple's senior vice-president of worldwide product marketing, Phil Schiller, has said that Apple won't prevent people from running Windows on Macs. Currently, the only people who have Intel-based Macs are software developers, inside and outside of Apple. Getting Windows to run on a Mac is not at the top of their priority lists.

Apple is providing Intel-based Macs to developers for the purpose of porting their applications, but the independent software vendors have to pay $1,000 for them, and turn them back in to Apple, so they're unlikely to be the subject of serious hacking.

We won't see the first dual-boot Windows/Mac OS computer until well after the Intel-based Macs are available for general sale.