Business-like, isn't he?



Business in Vancouver logo

    Steve Jobs rolls dice on Intel adventure

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business in Vancouver July 12-18, 2005; issue 820

    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 spinoff Freescale).

    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.

Search WWW Search

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan