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Apple and Intel: The Biggest Non-News of the Year

Apple's announcement last week that Macs would be switching away from the PowerPC chip to Intel-based CPUs sure was exciting, wasn't it? After all, Intel is part of the massive Wintel conspiracy that all right-thinking members of the Macintosh rebellion have been fighting against for so many years, correct? (Psst... That's Star Wars you're thinking of. What we have here is just a bunch of technology companies jostling for position.)

Honestly, as soon as my brain stopped spinning from the unexpectedness of it all, I've come to think that this announcement is the biggest non-news event of the year for the vast majority of Macintosh users. Our friend Jason Snell of Macworld has done a bang-up job of answering the most common questions surrounding the announcement, so I encourage you to read his piece; I won't attempt to replicate it here. Instead, here are the three reasons why I'm unperturbed, along with some counterpoint from that little voice in the back of my head.

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  1. Nothing even begins to change for us users for a year, when Apple plans to release the first Macs that will use some chip from Intel. Apple isn't specifying a chip, because it will depend on which one makes the most sense at that point for the Macs that will be first in line to get it (likely the lower end of the Mac line). And since it will take two years for the majority of the Mac line to switch, and until the end of 2007 before Apple plans to stop making PowerPC-based Macs, I just can't see this announcement affecting my life in the near term. So what all the fuss boils down to is that Apple will be releasing new Macs (and a new version of Mac OS X) in a year. I could have guessed that, and knowing that the Macs might have a different CPU doesn't change the fact that they're still vaporware.

    For counterpoint, it's worth noting that many organizations have purchase plans that extend years in advance. Obviously, those organizations now know that if they wait 12 to 30 months, they'll be able to purchase Macs that will likely be able to run Windows software at full performance. For such organizations, or anyone who doesn't mind delaying an upgrade until 2006 or 2007, waiting may make sense, and that in turn may hurt Apple's sales in the meantime. Remember, though, that Apple has over $6 billion in cash and no long-term debt, which will help ease any pain from transition. So even though Apple would prefer to not lose any sales, the company can weather a downturn.

  2. When push comes to shove, I don't care what CPU is inside my Mac, just as I don't care what chip runs my iPod, my cell phone, or my washing machine. To be fair, that's not entirely true. I care what CPU is in my Mac only to the extent that it enables Mac OS X to operate with acceptable performance and to run the software I need. When I next need to buy a new Mac, I'll have to evaluate whether or not the CPUs currently in use - from whatever company - meet those basic requirements. For instance, our plans to buy a new Power Mac G5 for Tonya remain unaffected. She needs a faster Mac to replace her aging 733 MHz PowerPC G4-based QuickSilver, and in keeping with our basic approach, we'll buy the Mac that provides the most performance for the money at the point in time when it's necessary. It would be nonsensical for Tonya to wait a year or two to buy an Intel-based Mac; if she needs the power now, as she does, she should buy a Mac now. (And she will, once she gets the opportunity.)

    On the other hand, Tonya and I use mainstream applications that don't take advantage of the Velocity Engine (also known as AltiVec) unit in the PowerPC chips. The impression I've gotten from talking with developers is that software that relies on the Velocity Engine will require significantly more effort to port to the Intel architecture; as such, users who rely on audio or video software may find themselves waiting for versions that will run on new Intel-based Macs, or they may find their software improving at a slower rate in situations where developers choose to concentrate on porting to Intel chips instead of adding new features. So, some users will likely suffer in the transition, or find themselves limited in the Macs they can buy and use in the 2 to 4 year time-frame.

  3. I don't see any significant philosophical difference between Intel and IBM as Apple's primary chip supplier. There's no underdog here, just a bunch of 600-pound gorillas, and I certainly hope that Intel can meet Apple's need for chips better than IBM and Motorola/Freescale have over the years. Even if I was horribly offended by Apple's move for some reason, what's the alternative? Switching away from a Mac would entail using an x86-based chip (though a system could be purchased from AMD rather than Intel), so that doesn't seem like much of a statement. And switching would also require using Windows or some flavor of Unix; to my mind that would be a matter of cutting off my nose to spite my face.

    That said, if you feel betrayed by Apple, it's not entirely surprising. After all, it wasn't long ago that Steve Jobs featured demonstrations of how the PowerPC beat the pants off the Pentium in head-to-head Photoshop tests. In other words, Apple has played up the us-versus-them mentality at the chip level, and is now paying the price with a certain set of customers.

Final Thoughts -- In the end, I see no reason we shouldn't take Steve Jobs at his word with regard to why Apple announced this switch. It's not so much about which chips are available today as what Apple sees as being available in several years. Despite the fact that Apple has been compiling Mac OS X for Intel chips all along, there's no question that the transition will require a lot of effort for Apple and for Macintosh developers. It's not a decision Apple would have made lightly, and for the most part, neither Apple nor developers gain anything by it in the short term. But in the long term, if Apple has made the right decision, the Mac will benefit with increased performance across the line. Users will like the increased performance and design possibilities opened up for Apple, as well as the increased performance for Windows applications. And if all that is true, Apple will sell more Macs and increase the size of the market for developers.

But that's all in the future. For now, the announcement means great PR for Intel, a lot of work for Apple and Mac developers, and business as usual for the rest of us.


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