• The Apple/Intel Report: The Pressure Mounts

    December 17th, 2005

    Over the past six months, most of my columns have focused on the well-known positive aspects of Apple’s impending switch to Intel processors. But, no, I’m not being a cheerleader; I just want to take as realistic an approach as possible and clear up the confusion and misguided speculation.

    But there are land mines out there for Apple, and they are going to have to work real hard to avoid missteps. Unlike the Apple of even a few years ago, the tech world is watching carefully. Speculation on when the new products, which I’ve dubbed MacIntels, will arrive is no longer just the province of a handful of Mac rumor sites. The mainstream press has jumped in these murky waters with both feet. Industry analysts are predicting precisely what Apple is going to do next month, and expectations for the Macworld Expo San Francisco are higher than ever!

    As I’ve said before, Apple has little choice but to move real fast, because sales of some Macs may suffer big time if they disappoint. Today, it seems realistic to expect that Steve Jobs will unveil Intel-based versions of the Mac mini and iBook. These two bread-and-butter consumer models haven’t been updated in a while, and the last updates were tepid at best. In fact, the Mac mini is little different from the one that debuted 11 months ago, except for more standard memory and perhaps some units with slightly faster processors. The iBook is now regarded as overpriced to the tune of $200 to $300 compared to the typical PC laptop. Whether true or not, and I haven’t done the feature comparisons in any detail, perceptions count for a lot. As far as the PowerBook is concerned, well, some say yes; others say it won’t happen till much later in the year.

    In January, Intel’s new mobile processor, code-named Yonah, will ship in quantity. It’ll be available in dual-core form, and its maker promises huge speed improvements and improved battery life over previous chips. The Yonah is said to be earmarked for the first MacIntels, and you can bet that Dell and HP will have their variants early on. Apple is not going to want to stand at the end of the line in getting those chips. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Steve Jobs has been insisting that Apple, as Intel’s prestige customer, get the first batch.

    But receiving those chips, whether the first week or the second, isn’t enough. All the design elements have to be in place and the operating system must be ready to support the new processor design. Since Apple has been doing parallel design of its operating system, I’ve little doubt it’ll have a version of Mac OS X for Intel ready. In fact, published reports, not officially confirmed, have suggested that Tiger will simply scream on Intel. In favor of these reports is the fact that the core of the operating system was optimized years ago for Intel long before it came to the PowerPC.

    On the other hand, Apple is not immune to the version 1.0 disease. In the rush to deliver product to satisfy expectant customers, it is quite possible there will be serious bugs of one sort or another. Of course, any operating system issue can be resolved by a downloadale patch. Not so with the hardware of course, and the folks who wait in line to buy the first MacIntels don’t want to return the units to the repair shop because something failed. Now it’s very possible Apple will take the smart approach, which is to use Intel reference designs for logic boards as much as possible, and not try to reinvent the wheel. Most of the other parts inside a Mac these days are industry standard, from RAM to hard drives, so, aside from the form factor, it is quite conceivable development time for the new models is a lot less than you might expect.

    But any time a new model is produced, production problems can occur. What if Intel is a little late shipping those Yonah chips to Apple? It won’t make a dime’s worth of difference for a PC laptop. You hardly remember the model names or designs anyway, for the most part. But every single thing Apple does is a major development. If one anonymous Dell computer doesn’t do as well as the next, it doesn’t make that much of a difference to the company’s bottom line, because it can always shift production to the next anonymous model.

    But an iBook? A Mac mini? I don’t know how Steve Jobs feels in the moments before he walks across the stage at a keynote. Performers are apt to feel nervous, and even some of the most famous entertainers out there will feel sick to their stomachs in anticipation of the grand entrance. I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve has that brief moment of doubt as he considers the impact of what he has to say. Yes, he seems quite relaxed on stage and that is a talent to be envied. But the pressure is going to be extraordinary, more so than at any time in the company’s history.

    He will have to deliver the goods. Forget a new iPod or even that rumored iPod-within-a-boom box. You expect such devices. But you also expect the beginning of a new line of Macs that’ll knock your socks off. You want to be able to place your order or rush to a dealer to take one home on day one, and you want to hope that you won’t have to return the unit a week later because it doesn’t perform the way you wanted.

    But it’ll be a lot worse if the products you expected do not appear. What will Apple’s excuse be then? And just repeating the line that it will happen in the first half of the year won’t be sufficient.

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