Apple shifts to Intel: what is all the fuss about?
Let's all just calm down
Analysis A number of major news services this weekend forecast that Apple will today announce a staged migration from PowerPC to x86 processors. If it's made, the announcement will take place at the Mac maker's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, certainly the most likely venue for such a revelation since it's addressing the folk who will have to bear the brunt of such a move.
Many are likely to be horrified. Quite a few Mac zealots will be too, and Apple is going to lose the support of some of its oldest supporters. Well, if they want to cut off their noses to spite their faces, let them. For the majority of Mac users, it's no bad thing. It's not an 'about time too' moment either - it's simply the latest stage in the evolution of the Mac.
First, understand the key fact: a Mac built out of an Intel CPU and Intel system logic will be no more a PC than a Mac is today. Two things make a Mac: the operating system and the hardware design. It is not, for the vast majority of users, what kind of processor it contains.
Most of the components that go into that hardware are already coming straight out of the wider Wintel world, and have been since Apple began ditching proprietary specifications like NuBus and ADB, and expensive standards like SCSI, in favour of USB, Firewire, UItra ATA, Serial ATA, PCI and AGP.
Mac hardware today differs from PCs solely in the CPU, system logic and the motherboard they sit on. You can argue that PowerPC is a 'better' chip than x86 equivalents, but it's difficult to demonstrate a clear, real-world advantage between the two platforms. Some benchmarks show the Mac's superiority, others don't. The G5-class PowerPC 970 certainly hasn't retained the low-power benefit of the old G4 and looks no closer to notebook-suitability now than it did when it was launched.
That may well be one of the reasons for Apple's move, if it's made. Today's Pentium M-based Centrino machines can be noisy and run hot, but they're faster than Apple's top-end PowerBooks, with both higher speed CPUs and faster system buses. They already have the latest standard technologies, such as PCI Express and Serial ATA, DDR 2 SDRAM support, and HD audio. Desktops Macs still don't have RAID on the motherboard.
To compete, Apple has to engineer all these features into its own system chips, and that's expensive to do. So far, it's had to take the cost in the chin, because of its decision to stick with PowerPC. A shift to x86, however, means it can buy in the parts in volume, from any one of a variety of competing vendors - Intel, VIA, SiS, ULi, Nvidia, ATI etc. - and save money. It will no longer need to design its own motherboards, either.
The notebook side of the story is important because of the way the personal computer market is shifting in that direction - simply, users want notebooks more than they do desktops, and that is already driving prices down. And until the advent of the Mac Mini, Apple has always fared poorly on price competitiveness.
The processor market is changing too. The old Risc vs Cisc argument hasn't had any real meaning for years, largely thanks to Intel's adoption of the best of both worlds. Intel is committed to moving beyond its chunky NetBurst architecture, the foundation of the hot-running Pentium 4, toward a sleeker, cooler Pentium M-derived future. That will take place late next year, after the company has begun a migration to its 65nm process technology which, it's claimed, may have solved some of the current leakage and power consumption problems that plagued its 90nm process. IBM had similar issues with its own shift to 90nm - one of the reasons why the G5 needs some aggressive cooling systems.
At the same time, AMD has transitioned to its AMD64 architecture, designed from the ground up not only for 64-bit computing, but also multi-core processing. Again, that's an advantage IBM has too, but what IBM lacks are the volumes even AMD is pumping out. With greater volumes come lower prices, and that again makes it harder for Apple to compete.
Apple may go for Intel, it may go for AMD, or use chips from both. Intel is perhaps the most likely, since Apple will undoubtedly be hoping to share in the benefits Dell gets from sticking to a single supplier. If, as is believed, Intel makes it worth Dell's while to stay an Intel-only company, the chip giant is likely to be just as accommodating for Apple. Marketing on the scale Apple works to doesn't come cheap, and any help it can get will be welcomed. Intel gives plenty of help to companies willing to add its logo to their own machines and advertising.
But it may not only be Intel that is driving Apple's CPU shift. At this stage, we don't know what role IBM has played, and the company's own move to become a bespoke chip designer and production foundry may simply no longer favour Apple. Getting a third-party to design your chips for you may be cheaper than doing so yourself, but it's unlikely to be less expensive than buying off-the-shelf parts. Apple may be being forced down the route simply because funding the ongoing evolution of PowerPC is just too expensive to do. While it may have had IBM to share to cost in the past, IBM may no longer be willing to subsidise the development for a chip family that is not only increasingly less central to its own hardware plans but to the future it has in mind for its microelectronics division. IBM even views Cell as a custom chip designed for Sony and Toshiba rather than as a full-scale processor platform it can sell to thousands of hardware developers.
If that's the case, the timing does at least work in Apple's favour. With the shift to the Mac OS X now effectively done, Apple has its most CPU-agnostic OS yet, so it's in the best position it can be to begin transitioning to a different CPU platform. Yes, apps will need recompiling, though Apple may have some clever emulation code up its sleeve to ease the process, as it has done before. That's not to say the shift will be easy for all developers, or even for users, who may find they need to repurchase apps to get the full benefit, but neither is it an impossible move. APIs like Java, Cocoa, Carbon and AppleScript will stay the same, and a lot of code can be left to the compiler to handle. Better compiler technology can bypass many of the limitations of a given architecture.
Then there's the iPod effect. The portable music player has boosted Apple's market recognition to the point where it probably feels it can cope with the loss of the PowerPC zealots and target buyers for whom either the specific brand of CPU doesn't matter, or those who are likely to favour an 'Intel inside' unit. Thanks to Intel's marketing - and pace AMD's superior architecture - there are quite a few folk out there in that position: just look at the chip makers' relative market shares.
So, sitting here, in front of a PowerBook G4, what is Apple's move, if it's announced later today, likely to mean for me? Assuming the PowerBooks Apple is offering when I next upgrade are based on a future Pentium M processor - almost certainly a dual-core - and Centrino chipset, then I'll almost certainly be able to buy a much faster system, well beyond what Freescale has in mind for its G4-class processors, with faster memory, a faster system bus and faster interconnects. I'll still have a good display, Nvidia or ATI graphics, a capacious hard drive, slot-loading optical drive (Blu-ray?), USB 2.0 and Firewire ports, Ethernet, modem, and 802.11g wireless networking. The machine will wake from sleep just as well as mine does now and probably still way better than Windows notebooks do.
I'll still be running Mac OS X with its familiar features, bundled applications and look'n'feel. One or two third-party apps may have fallen by the wayside, as they did when it got my first Power Mac, and when I ditched Mac OS 9 for Mac OS X, but the core - Microsoft Office and Photoshop are likely to be present still. If not, I'm not exactly stuck for good alternatives.
Downsides? Well, the new machine will probably be noisier, though that's going to happen whatever CPU Apple chooses. It probably won't be all that much cheaper, since Apple's not likely to lose its high-end brand just because it's using more standard components.
No matter what Apple does, the personal computer market is favouring ever larger organisations - look at Dell's growth, the HP/Compaq merger and now the Lenovo/IBM deal - who can deliver mass-produced machines, cheaply. There are niches, and a growing number of them, but even nice players have to have an eye on the bottom line, and a publicly traded company like Apple even more so.
The classic risk for Apple is that by shifting to x86 , even if Macs remain distinct at the hardware level from PCs, it will allow clever coders to figure out how to run Mac OS X on cheap PCs in place of Windows. But that's a red herring. That's only going to appeal to a number of hard-core techies, who probably wouldn't buy a Mac in any case. And it will take a while for all the drivers that Apple won't supply to be written to allow Mac OS X to be freely installed on a non-Apple computer. Yes, it will happen, but it's unlikely to hammer Apple's bottom line. Most of its core customer base are not going to want to give up their shiny PowerBooks just because they can buy Mac OS X and hack it onto a tatty no-name PC clone. In short, this is not the problem for Apple's bottom line that it might have been a few years back. And it leaves Apple little closer to shipping a broad-based Mac OS X for x86 shrink-wrap.
The transition won't be smooth - they never are, entirely - but ultimately it will be no different from any of the others Apple has inflicted or been forced to inflict on its users. Indeed, Apple has a good record of making such migrations as smooth as it can, unlike some other vendors we could name.
Five years from now, everyone's going to wonder what all the fuss was about.