• The Apple/Intel Report: Lest We Forget!

    August 13th, 2005

    A little over two months ago, the Mac universe turned upside down and we’re still debating the impact. For years, we were told that Intel was our enemy, part of the villainous Wintel gang that meant us ill, that the processors Apple bought from Freescale Semiconductor and IBM were far superior. Year after year, at Macworld keynotes, we’d see how PC boxes with Intel Inside would be beaten to a pulp when confronted by the most powerful Power Mac available.

    I even believed it, not because I am convinced that everything Apple says is the truth, but because I performed my own tests and came up with similar outcomes. Of course, I also occasionally took some grief for what some felt was my “blind” acceptance of obvious untruths. Surely Apple tampered with those PCs, and cooked the tests so their hardware would always emerge triumphant. I felt then, and I feel now that the numbers were accurate. But I also believe that competitive matchups of this sort will always be customized so they put a company’s own products in the best possible light. Some devised tests that showed Macs to be second best. But what’s a few seconds one way or the other among friends, right?

    When Steve Jobs explained why Apple was switching to Intel, some took him at his word. Others felt there were ulterior motives at hand, and that the Mac OS would eventually be separated from Apple hardware and be sold as a retail product that you could install on your Dell, HP or home-brewed PC box. They seemed to forget that one of the first acts taken by Steve Jobs when he took command of Apple a few years back was to scuttle the Mac OS clone program. Why would Apple ditch its closed ecosystem simply because it switched processor sources?

    Forgetting the illogic of this theory, the speculation didn’t stop there. The so-called Macintel would be the first salvo in a forthcoming duel-to-the-death with Microsoft. Steve Jobs has acquired the taste for power with the huge success of the iPod, and being number one with a bullet feels good. He wants to change history, demonstrate to one and all that the Mac can indeed take over the computing industry. How a simple processor change is going to accomplish what many feel to be an impossible task is anyone’s guess, and I won’t even try. Didn’t Jobs himself say some years back that the operating system wars were over?

    Besides, so long as Apple makes a profit and pleases its stockholders, does it really matter if it’s not number one? Having a single digit market share hasn’t hurt BMW, right?

    In any case, maybe I’m naive, but, until proven otherwise, I’m inclined to take Steve Jobs at his word. IBM hasn’t been able to deliver the goods, that long-promised 3GHz G5, nor has it been able to tame the chip for laptop use in a timely fashion. Sure, it has announced a low power version of the chip, but have you seen one yet, and do you know when it might ship? I don’t, and it strikes me as being too little and too late. IBM had its chance, and it apparently decided it can earn a lot more money building chips for gaming consoles. Maybe Apple was asked to help out with some development cash to help herd the project along. Perhaps not, but does it really matter? Sure, today’s G5 does appear to smoke today’s Pentium in certain performance matchups, but Apple isn’t quoting benchmarks for its PowerBooks anymore. Doesn’t that make a very important statement, and that is that a Wintel laptop is faster and, in some cases, delivers greater battery life?

    One thing that Apple can be assured of once it begins its Intel migration in earnest is a steady supply of the chips it needs to keep its computers competitive. Some suggest that Intel might even build custom processors for Apple. But that doesn’t “compute,” simply because Intel has already stated, publicly at least, that Apple will be regarded as just another OEM customer, and that it will have access to the very same chips offered to other computer makers.

    In fact, I’m feeling quite encouraged from early developer reaction that the transition will be surprisingly smooth. The task of delivering applications in Universal Binary form, so they run native on both PowerPC and Intel chips, appears to be less daunting for most than some feared. Developers who follow Apple’s guidelines closely may be able to accomplish the task in hours or a few days at most. There may not even be much incentive to charge extra for the upgrade, which should be the most promising news of all.

    Of course, that won’t stop some major software publishers, and Adobe and Microsoft come to mind, from simply rolling Universal Binaries into their next major feature upgrade. That way you will have to pay, but at least you’ll get something more than just software that runs native on the processor of your choice.

    One more thing: As soon as Jobs announced the switch to Intel, some commentators said that sales of new Macs would stop dead in their tracks. People will just hold off a year or two until Macintels, or whatever they’re called, appear. Maybe some of that is going on, but there’s no indication it has made much of an impact in sales, at least so far. Apple is hedging its bets for the current quarter, but it’s also true that Apple still rates high among sales of computers over at Amazon. Maybe that’s just a tiny microcosm of the online sales universe, but it’s enough to make me highly skeptical of those doom and gloom pronouncements.

    Or maybe I’m just the optimistic sort, but I really don’t think most Mac users even care what processor is inside their computers.

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