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Intel today, Microsoft tomorrow for Apple?

Probably not

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The trading of barbs is a well-honed sport in Silicon Valley - but it is just that - a sport.

CEOs often skewer their opponents in the arena of public opinion only to settle their differences through business alliances that leave us shaking our heads and saying things like: "So what were the last eight years all about, then?".

Just when you thought they couldn't top Microsoft and Sun Microsystems pal-ing up in 2004, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs welcomed Intel president and CEO Paul Otellini to his World Wide Developers' Conference (WWDC) to confirm Mac is going Intel.

Warm corporate relations between Apple and Intel follows some clever marketing stunts like this, replayed at WWDC on Monday.

Intel and Apple may now be bosom buddies, but one relationship that doesn't look like evolving in the near future is Apple and Microsoft - the second great pillar of the Wintel dynasty.

Just minutes before Microsoft's WWDC ambassador - Roz Ho, the head of Microsoft's Mac business - stepped on stage to support Mac-on-Intel, Jobs was rubbing Microsoft's nose in it from a client operating system perspective.

He noted that Apple has launched five versions of its client operating system, OS X, since 2000 while Microsoft has refreshed just once - Windows XP.

And, moving on from Tiger, the lates OS X release, Apple is now threatening to slide another one in under the wire before Microsoft finally launches Longhorn - its next full client release. Jobs on Monday announced the next OS X, Leopard, for the end of 2006 / early 2007, "around the time Microsoft is expected to release Longhorn," he said.

He also flashed up data for WWDC's 3,000 plus attendees that claimed the Mac market is kicking off while unit sales of PCs are going backwards.

Apple's move towards Intel is likely to drive it further apart from Microsoft,for two key reasons. It's a long shot, but Mac on Intel raises the possibility that a volume manufacturer, like a Dell, could pick-up development and distribution of the Mac, helping - over time - take Mac out of its creative market place niche, turning it into more of a mainstream alternative to Windows. Apple has already licensed its the iPod design to Hewlett Packard.

According to reviewers, Tiger poses a strong alternative to Windows XP, and it is Apple's fastest growing OS - two million sales in six weeks. Sales have been helped by integration with search and RSS, enabling sophisticated access to online services outside the browser. As Apple continues to update iTunes, with a Podcasting directory for example, OS X promises to turn the rich vision of web services - outlined by Bill Gates in summer 2000 - into a reality for many.

The second area of more tangible, immediate competition is in media. Jobs has a vision for sophisticated online media that involves the Mac, iTunes, iPods and QuickTime - version 7.0 of which for Windows was announced by Jobs during his Monday morning keynote.

Driving that vision is the need for a powerful hardware platform, and Jobs has - apparently - picked Intel for its balance of price and "power" - loosely meaning you get lots of performance for a relatively low, or advantageous, price.

Rich entertainment, multimedia and online music, tough, are territories where Microsoft is driving the PC, and affiliated networked devices running Media Player and MSN Music.

A key difference in the battle could well be the choice of hardware. While Microsoft is using Intel in PCs, it has picked a customized version of IBM's PowerPC for the planned Xbox 360 - one component in Microsoft's vision for networked entertainment at home.

Jobs, though, not only ditched PowerPC on the basis of power, but also for IBM's failure to produce a 3GHz G5 chip and a low-power G5.

So it looks like we can expect more finely crafted barbs from Apple in the next two years, as competition with Microsoft evolves and changes its shape. ®

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