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Apple interest in Intel switch led to purchase of NeXT, return of Steve Jobs

Apple's initial unsuccessful attempt to build a modern operating system in preparation for the switch to Intel processors led to the company's realization that it needed to purchase NeXT, a move that led to Steve Jobs' return to the company he co-founded.

During a panel entitled "Steve Jobs: A Legacy of Vision and Leadership" hosted by the Churchhill Club last week, several former employees from Apple's early days offered an inside look at the process behind the move to Intel chips, as noted by Forbes.

Panelists included Bill Atkinson, the creator of MacPaint and HyperCard; Jean-Louis Gassée, former head of Macintosh product development; Andy Hertzfeld, who served as a developer on the original Macintosh team and now works for Google; Regis McKenna, former marketing veteran for the company and Larry Tesler, former VP of Advanced Technology and Chief Scientist at Apple. Deborah Stapleton, Pixar's former head of investor and public relations, also participated in the panel.

According to Tesler, the need to transition away from Motorola's PowerPC processors in favor of Intel's chips led to the company's decision 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," he said. "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."

As the team realized the project wouldn't work, Apple eventually decided to purchase an operation. The company considered both BeOS and NeXT, both of which would make the switch to Intel possible. Of course, Apple eventually went with the company that Jobs had founded, a critical decision that led to his impressive comeback.

Even so, it took Jobs several years to eventually make the switch. He first focused on modernizing Mac OS, releasing Mac OS X in 2001. Then, after years of rumors that a switch was coming, he announced in June 2005 that Apple would move away from the PowerPC architecture to Intel.

Jobs had wanted to go with Intel at least five years earlier. He said during his 2005 keynote that Mac OS X had been leading "a secret double life" with parallel in-house Intel versions developed alongside each public PowerPC release.

To ease the transition, Apple developed a "Rosetta" emulator that allowed legacy PowerPC code to be run on Intel-based Macs. The company quietly retired Rosetta earlier this year with the release of Mac OS X Lion.