• The Mac Hardware Report: A Mac with Intel Inside? What Are They Smoking?

    May 28th, 2005

    Do you recall the scene? Apple VP Phil Schiller jumps onto the stage during a Macworld Expo keynote to stage a bakeoff between a Power Mac and a PC with an Intel processor. Invariably the Mac is faster than an Intel chip of equivalent clock speed; in fact, much faster in most cases. All right, there are some of you out there who don’t believe those benchmarks. Maybe the Macs were souped up, the Wintel boxes crippled. Maybe Apple concocted a set of tests that would only favor the Mac. Maybe.

    But in my experience, this sort of nasty speculation is has no factual basis whatever. If you do use the same tests and methods as Apple, and similarly configured hardware (based on the published configurations) you’ll get results that are remarkably similar. I know. I’ve done it a number of times over the past few years.

    However, that doesn’t stop the speculation that Apple is considering a move from its main processor supplier, IBM, to Intel. Fueling the speculation is the fact that the NeXTStep operating system, on which Mac OS X is based, did at one time work on Intel or x86 processors. Add to that the fact that IBM has run up against a virtual brick wall in delivering faster processors and particularly a low power G5 for the PowerBook and it all begins to make sense. Or does it?

    The latest round of speculation of a pending deal between Apple and Intel comes from none other than The Wall Street Journal, perhaps our most respected newspaper. Of course, neither Apple nor Intel have actually confirmed such discussions are taking place, and if there are discussions, what they are really about. So let’s use our imaginations, along with a healthy dose of logic.

    First and foremost the article clearly states that the price of a Mac is higher than a comparably equipped Wintel box, implying that using an Intel processor will bring the price down. Of course, we all know that’s not true. In addition, Apple is already using a lot of industry standard hardware in its computers. From hard drives and optical drives to board level components, the differences between a Mac and a PC are far less than they used to be. Unless Intel gives Apple a killer deal on processors, undercutting IBM’s price by a fair margin, the price you pay for a Mac wouldn’t change very much.

    But even assuming Apple could lower prices by a fair margin if it switched to “Intel Inside,” does it make any sense? Does Intel deliver a better product, with superior performance? When it comes to the Power Mac G5, the answer is clearly no, assuming Apple’s latest published benchmarks are essentially correct. So why would Apple want to make a wholesale switch to an inferior product? Because of Intel’s new low-power laptop processors? Is there something really wrong with today’s PowerBook? Just asking.

    But let’s pursue this line of reasoning a little further. Even if Apple decided to make the switch, it probably wouldn’t be such a big deal to port Mac OS X over to the x86 processor family. If you can believe the rumors and speculation, Apple has been building x86 compatible operating systems behind closed doors for a number of years. But what about the applications you run on your Mac? Well, you’d have to recompile all of them to run on a different processor, and establish some sort of emulation mode to allow existing software to run until new versions are out.

    This would very much echo the transition from 680×0 processors to PowerPC over a decade ago. Do you remember how it was in those early days? Few native PowerPC applications were out, and the emulation mode made your computer run older applications a lot slower than on older generation Macs. It took a few years for things to settle down and PowerPC chips to become powerful enough that emulation slowdowns were no longer a factor.

    But it doesn’t stop there. If Apple jumped into the Intel arena, how would it maintain its exclusivity? The new x86 Macs would no doubt be equipped with a boot ROM or BIOS that would be required by Mac OS X to run. But how long would it take competitors to reverse engineer those chips so that Apple’s crown jewels would run on any PC box? A few hours? A day? Didn’t IBM try that sort of thing years ago, and how long did it take for PC clones to take over the market?

    Do you remember the brief Mac OS clone era? Apple licensed the Mac OS and logic board designs to other companies, who promptly stuffed them into cheap PC boxes and undercut Apple big time. It nearly put Apple out of business until Steve Jobs pulled the plug, so why trod that well worn ground all over again? And that is precisely what would happen if Apple switched from IBM to Intel? How could it be otherwise?

    So we return to the original question: Is Apple really talking to Intel about processors for its personal computers or about something else entirely? Remember that x86 processors aren’t the only products Intel makes. What about an embedded chip for a new generation of iPods or some other digital hub device? Why does it have to be about replacing the G5 with an x86 processor? As Mr. Spock said in that famous SF show so long ago, “That, sir, is illogical!”

    Now perhaps all this speculation is true. Maybe Steve Jobs will take the stage at the Worldwide Developer’s Conference next month and announce a deal to phase out the G5 in favor of an Intel alternative. But I just can’t see where such a deal would make any sense. Right now, Apple is on a roll, and its market share is finally beginning to climb out of the doldrums. Why mess up a good thing? Why indeed!

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