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June 9, 2005updated 19 Aug 2016 10:11am

Apple Intel Switch Leaves Plenty of Questions

In the true spirit of democracy, this is CBR deputy editor Matthew Aslett's take on the Apple switch to Intel: it needs no further introduction.Well it's finally happened. Apple chief executive Steve Jobs announced at the Apple Worldwide Developer

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In the true spirit of democracy, this is CBR deputy editor Matthew Aslett’s take on the Apple switch to Intel: it needs no further introduction.

Well it’s finally happened. Apple chief executive Steve Jobs announced at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco that Apple would end its 11-year relationship with IBM to move to Intel’s processors for its Macintosh computers.

It was an announcement that provided more questions than it did answers, however. In particular ‘why?’ and ‘what does it all mean?’

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Jobs at least had ‘how?’ covered, proving that Apple’s attention to detail extends beyond the design of its hardware and software. Apple will begin introducing Intel-based Mac’s before next year’s WWDC, he said, and will have completed the transition by the end of 2007.

He also revealed that Mac OS X has secretly been compiled for both Intel chips and IBM’s PowerPC for the past five years, ensuring that Apple’s software should run smoothly on the Intel processors.

The fact that a demo machine Jobs had already used to demonstrate some of the new features of Apple’s recent Tiger OS X 10.4 release already had Intel inside put pay to any naysayers on that one.

Meanwhile, a demonstration of Microsoft’s Office and Adobe’s PhotoShop running on the same Mac proved that Apple’s Rosetta dynamic binary translator would enable applications written for the PowerPC-based Macs to run on Intel-based machines.

For a longer-term solution to the third-party application issue, Jobs also introduced version 2.1 of Xcode, Apple’s development environment, which will enable application developers to create universal binaries that will run on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs.

When it came to explaining ‘why’ Apple had chosen to move to Intel, and perhaps more succinctly, ‘why now’, Jobs was a little more sketchy with the details, however.

He pointed to delays with promised Apple products, such as the G5 3GHz PowerMac and a G5 laptop, which have caused the company both frustration and embarrassment in not being able to meet performance targets.

The performance of the PowerPC processor has always been one thing that Apple, and its loyal users, could boast about, but Jobs produced some immediately disputed statistics that suggested Intel is moving ahead in terms of performance per watt.

"As we look ahead, we envision some amazing products. But we don’t know how to build them with the future PowerPC roadmap," is all he added, and perhaps there is more in this statement than meets the eye. Details may yet emerge that will vindicate Apple’s decision.

In the meantime, the question remains as to what it will all mean. Cheaper Apple hardware, perhaps, as the company can take advantage of Intel’s larger volume pricing, but what of Mac OS on Intel PCs from alternative hardware vendors?

Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller has been quoted as saying that "We will not allow running Mac OS X on anything other than an Apple Mac," but how long will that last?

Keeping the company’s iPod MP3 player and iTunes music management software to the Mac might have enabled Apple to drive more Mac sales, but the company’s decision to allow both to support Windows has enabled it to gain a 76% share of the MP3 player market, and an 82% share of the music management software market, according to figures presented by Jobs during his speech. Additionally, Apple’s decision to allow HP to resell the iPod has shown the company’s willingness to go for the volume market, where it sees an opportunity.

Allowing iPod and iTunes to run on Windows certainly hasn’t harmed Apple’s hardware sales, with the company increasing year-over-year Mac growth rates from under 10% to over 40% over the last five quarters, while the PC market as a whole dropped from just under 20% to around 10%, according to Jobs.

Having Mac OS available on alternative hardware might cost Apple some hardware sales, but it would also provide an easier way for Apple-shy customers to evaluate its potential and for the company to win over a few potential converts.

It would also add a new element to the battle for the desktop, expanding Apple’s challenge to Microsoft and presenting another alternative alongside (or perhaps instead of) Linux. On the other hand, Apple may feel that it needs to keep its remaining differentiators close to its chest, now that it has given up on one of them.

There is also the issue of whether current and potential Mac users might delay future hardware purchases to wait for the Intel-based machines. How Apple will deal with that particular problem remains to be seen.

While Schiller’s statement appears to rule-out any potential of Mac OS on alternative hardware, Jobs’s announcement proved that nothing can be completely ruled out. "I suspect there’s a whole bunch of you who never thought you’d see that logo on this stage," commented Intel’s CEO, Paul Otellini.

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