The news about Intel becoming the next CPU source for Apple is so full of ironic and comic moments it is like an Alan Ayckbourn farce. The announcement leaves Intel in the driving seat and as an unquestioned leader in the motherboard market. It comes at a time when IBM’s PowerPC is experiencing its finest hour – as supplier to the new gaming consoles from Microsoft and Sony.
And here Apple, having long been criticised for arrogance and closed architecture, gets kudos for going with a more ‘open’ platform that holds the possibility of running both Mac OS (in whatever incarnation that will end up as in 2007), even with a company that is possibly more closed and arrogant than itself. And the anti-Mac corporate culture runs deep at Intel: when I last visited Intel’s campus outside of Portland a month ago, I brought my Intel-based laptop with me which has a huge Apple sticker on it. The number of comments and odd looks I got… and changing these attitudes in Intel’s rank and file is going to take almost as long as recoding the Mac apps.
There are several key take-aways from all this hand-wringing. First off, the key chip is the cool-and-quiet Pentium M. Perhaps Intel will finally see fit to overclock this puppy and provide Apple with a screaming processor for its laptops, something that IBM has been unable to provide these past few years.
One of the reasons I bought my G5 desktop was to have a better CPU than what was (and still isn’t) available in Apple laptops. While the Mac laptops look cool with their brushed silver finish, the brains inside them are still a generation behind desktops. As we all know, the desktop is so 1990s, and laptops are where it’s all at these days.
Second, the days of just considering CPUs as a single element in the PC design are also ‘so 1990s’-thinking as well. It isn’t just about the chip, but the supporting chips around it and the graphics subsystem attached as well. Intel clearly has done a better job than IBM in this department. One could argue that AMD has better bus architecture than Intel, but I don’t want to get into that debate here.
Third, Intel and Apple need each other at this point, but for very different reasons, and that might make for a tumultuous business relationship over the next few years. Intel needs a wedge to motivate Microsoft, which has had the upper hand in the Wintel relationship for too long. They need to recapture the technology lustre that AMD has grabbed and re-establish themselves as the pre-eminent force in the PC universe. Apple needs a better platform, a way to pack more cycles into their boxes, and a way to make better laptops.
Fourth, the Intel transition isn’t going to happen overnight, and even the two-year timeframe that Jobs outlined is probably optimistic. Remember the transition from 68000 to PowerPC? I think we finished with that one a few years ago. To make matters worse, Apple is charging a grand (US) for a software developer kit: they should be giving this away for free if they really are serious about getting developers on board for the Intel generation.
Finally, IBM comes out a loser here in the perception wars, but not much behind in the business sense. They are making hay with Sony and Microsoft in the new generation consoles coming out in the next year, and chances are they’ll sell more gaming units at more of a profit than they could ever hope to get with Apple. According to analysts, only about one per cent of IBM’s chip business is related to Apple, which is about the same size as Apple’s overall PC market share.
But the marquee value of this one per cent is huge and noticeable.
My take on this is best summed up with a look at Microsoft’s booth at E3 last month, where they were running the latest Xbox 360 demos on Apple G5s (of course, they were concealed from easy viewing, but they were there). Again, the ironies of Microsoft using Macs to run the latest gaming products on a box that will come from IBM technology – it almost makes you wish for those simple days back when IBM and Microsoft were developing OS/2. But we all know what happened there, and hopefully Intel and Apple will have a better time of things.