Apple’s new OS geared for multicore future

Apple began shipping Snow Leopard on Friday, but the true importance of the Mac OS X update likely will emerge well afterward.

That’s because Mac OS X 10.6 begins a longer-term Apple attempt to get ahead by cracking a problem facing the entire computer industry: squeezing useful work out of modern processors. Instead of stuffing Snow Leopard with immediately obvious new features, Apple is trying to adjust to the new reality in which processors can do many jobs simultaneously rather than one job fast.

“We’re trying to set a foundation for the future,” said Wiley Hodges, director of Mac OS X marketing.

Apple shed some light on its project, called Grand Central Dispatch at its Worldwide Developer Conference in June, but most real detail was shared only in with programmers sworn to secrecy. Now the company has begun talking more publicly about it and other deeper projects to take advantage of graphics chips and Intel’s 64-bit processors.

The moves align Apple better with changes in computing. For years, chipmakers such as Intel and Advanced Micro Devices had steadily increased the clock rate of their processors, and programmers got accustomed to a performance boost with each new generation. But earlier this decade, problems derailed the gigahertz train.

First, chips often ended up merely twiddling their thumbs more because slower memory couldn’t keep the chip fed with data. Worse, the chips required extraordinary amounts of power and produced corresponding amounts of hard-to-handle waste heat.

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