Jobs rolls dice on Intel adventure
Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business
July 12-18, 2005;
High Tech Office column
Last week's chicken and egg question concerned Apple: is it a software
company that sells classy hardware to run its slick programs or is
software like Apple's next-generation operating system Tiger the carrot
to get customers to buy Macintosh computer hardware?
While Mac users were generally pleased with the spring release of OS X
10.4 Tiger, the company got more attention for last month's
announcement that plans were afoot to base future hardware development
on chips from Intel, maker of the Pentium series of CPUs used in most
Windows PCs, away from the PowerPC chips (made by IBM and Motorola
Apple has a history of dissing Intel products. One TV ad pictured a
Pentium CPU on the back of a snail. Apple CEO Steve Jobs often gave
speeches deriding the "megahertz myth," offering reasons why the
PowerPCs powering Macs had better performance than Intel products that
promised seemingly higher speeds.
Despite that, Apple was growing increasingly frustrated with IBM. The
company hasn't delivered PowerPC G5 chips running at 3 GHz or faster
and hasn't been able to get the G5 to run cool enough to be usable in
Apple's popular PowerBook notebooks. And buying four or five million
CPUs a year didn't make Apple a big enough IBM customer to make its
needs a priority. Meanwhile, new Intel products like the Pentium M CPU
are fast performers while offering long battery life for notebooks.
Secretly, Apple has been making sure that each generation of Mac OS X
could run on Intel-style hardware, giving it a back door in case the
relationship with IBM soured. At the Apple developer's conference where
Jobs announced the switch to Intel, he showed that he had been running
an Intel-powered Mac throughout his speech. Afterwards, Apple offered
to lease Pentium 4-powered Macs to the conference attendees.
These Pentium 4 "Mac-tel" towers aren't for sale to the general public.
Running a pre-release operating system version, they allow developers
to get a head start translating Mac software to run on the new
hardware. Apple expects to start selling Intel-powered Macs on the low
end of its hardware lineup in 2006, releasing the higher-end models the
following year, and needs to ensure that Intel-capable software will be
available at that time.
It appears likely that this new generation of Apple hardware will allow
users to boot to their choice of Mac OS X or Windows. It is far less
likely, however, that Apple will make it equally easy for owners of
other PCs to boot to OS X (though I wouldn't be surprised if hacks
start appearing to make this possible). Many current Mac programs
should be able to run unchanged on the new hardware, though expect a
performance hit; software will need to be reworked to run at full speed
on the Intel-Macs. And older-style Mac software, developed for the
so-called Mac Classic operating system, simply won't work at all.
Jobs' announcement doesn't make today's generation of Macintosh
hardware instantly obsolete. A PowerBook or iMac G5 is just as powerful
and slick a computer as it was prior to the announcement. Still, I
wouldn't be surprised if Macintosh sales slow down for a while as many
users decide to hold off purchasing for a year or so and wait for the
new models. Businesses in particular may find the ability to boot to
Windows an attractive option.
Apple has survived disruptive transitions in the past, such as the
mid-1990s move from Motorola's 680x0 CPUs to the PowerPC line and the
shift from the classic Mac OS to OS X more recently. Jobs is betting
the company again on the current transition to Intel.