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The Intel Transition: A Rush to Market!

In the scheme of things, Apple has done some incredible work over the years in making major system transitions. First it was the adoption of the PowerPC, beginning in 1994, and the various and sundry work developers had to do to make their products “native.” Of course the migration to Mac OS X, with the public beta reaching your hands in September of 2000, represented a similar disruption.

The latest major processor and programming shift, to Intel and Universal applications, seems to have gone off a lot better than many predicted. Steve Jobs promised that the move to Intel would be complete by the end of 2007, but some industry pundits suggested it would take longer. Of course, Apple flummoxed the pundits yet again by converting roughly 80 to 85% of its sales to Intel-based computers within less than a year.

On the other hand, I think Apple may have worked just a little too fast to get there, and thus there are product defects that, frankly, could have been avoided. Now it seems the iMac and Mac mini have fared well, largely because they borrow the form factors of previous models, and limited changes strictly to those that are needed for the new Intel chipsets. That wasn’t the case with the MacBook Pro, both the 15.4-inch and 17-inch versions, where they were made, at the very least, thinner than their predecessors. The MacBook is a new form factor, although it still bears some family resemblance to the iBook.

So what went wrong? Well, those complaints of excessive heat for one. Isn’t the Core Duo supposed to be a cool-running processor? Yet the products using it from Apple are as hot or hotter than the iBook and PowerBook models that preceded it. Now Apple may have addressed some of those issues with its SMC updates, which supposedly regulate the speeds of the cooling fans. But the jury is still out, and some report no change at all, and, no, I won’t get into the matter of thermal grease and similar obscure questions. That’s for design engineers to figure out.

There’s also the MacBook Pro battery, which has been blamed for early failures, such as losing its ability to hold a charge, overheating and swelling. Sure, Apple will replace bad batteries under warranty, but aren’t these things pretty much standard in the industry? Didn’t Apple do long-term testing before releasing these products?

Let’s not forget the white MacBook, some of which have become stained after a brief period of regular use. So are folks rushing to their new note-books after a house-painting session? No, this particular problem appears to result from using plastics that are too porous in some of the early production units. Supposedly such ills can be remedied by replacing the case or even the entire computer, but, as usual, such matters are usually left to the discretion of the dealer or the Apple support rep. So buyer beware and, if the going gets tough, be persistent!

Now it’s perfectly true that production defects aren’t unique to Apple, and it still fares better than most PC makers when it comes to reliability. Moreover, problems are not limited to the newest note-books, and notice I don’t call them laptops anymore. Apple has, in recent years, issued extended warranty programs for the iBook, eMac and iMac, for example, to address serious defects. Maybe they’ve been rushing things to market for a while.

To be sure, Apple’s performance here might be excused. Today’s electronic devices are terribly complicated, and real world experience may be difficult to reproduce in a Q&A lab. In addition, ongoing production changes may result in switching from one OEM company to another to source a part. It may seem to be the same, but something happens that’s not predicted. So perhaps Apple isn’t totally to blame.

At the same time, there were tremendous pressures on Apple to move its Intel transition as fast as possible. At first, there was no apparent measurable impact on sales for existing PowerPC products, but that changed in the last quarter of 2005, as a “pause” was observed as some anticipated the arrival of the first MacIntels in January.

Once the floodgates were opened, Apple was clearly put in a no-win situation. The products had to be available, for otherwise sales would continue to stall. With a big push this year to move Windows users to the Mac, that wouldn’t look so good, and having the line largely Intel-based and being able to run Windows at native or near-native speeds is a big plus. Also the mad rush to Intel forces developers to speed up their Universal upgrades to existing products. No excuses anymore!

Those excuses will even diminish further when the final stage of the transition comes, and that’s not going to take much longer. Apple is no doubt going to stock up on the newest Intel Core 2 Duo chips as fast as they can be built, and you can be assured the products with those new processors will soon be rolling into your local dealer warehouses.

Does this mean you should hold off on buying a MacIntel? No, not at all. I think most of the early production issues have been addressed or are being addressed, at least based on my scoping out the situation. The products you buy now should work just fine, and perhaps Apple will have learned a few lessons for their successors.

At least I hope so.