NEW YORK (Business 2.0) -
Apple's announcement last month that it was switching from IBM PowerPC chips to Intel chips was one of those seismic events whose aftershocks continue to be felt for a long time.
Now that Apple (Research) has started to ship its first Intel (Research) systems -- test machines for developers who want to port their applications over to the new Intel-based Macs went out late last month -- it's worth examining why the company made the move and what the impact on the rest of the tech world will be.
The reason for the switch is a basic one. Nearly a decade ago, Apple ran ads about how its chips toasted Intel's Pentiums. At the time, that seemed like a good thing. But now heat is a problem that's threatening Apple's burgeoning computer sales.
Heat and power consumption -- two faces of the same coin, really -- used to be a problem that was mostly confined to dense racks of servers in data centers. But now it's increasingly a problem for laptops and even desktops.
Swing open the side of an Apple Power Mac G5 and you'll see an intricate system of fans and vents designed to cope with the heat generated by the IBM (Research) PowerPC chip inside. And the heat problem is why there's no G5 laptop.
At last month's developers conference, where he announced the switch, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took IBM to task for failing to deliver chips that were powerful but cool enough for the job. IBM riposted by introducing two new PowerPC chips that deliver more computing power per watt, but these were apparently too little too late.
Flexibility for the corporate set
Another aspect of the deal that few have mentioned is Intel's strength in chipsets, the electronic components that surround a CPU. Apple's test machines have reportedly shipped with an Intel graphics card, and it's entirely possible that new laptops would include Intel's Centrino technology, which combines built-in Wi-Fi with a Pentium M processor and an accompanying chipset. (An Apple spokesperson did not return a call asking for comment.)
While it's unlikely that Apple will abandon its premium-pricing strategy, the resulting cost savings from packaging those components together could either make Apple's laptops a more compelling buy or boost the company's bottom line.
Most important, using Intel processors could make Apple machines a safer buy for corporate IT shops. Apple executives have said that while Mac OS X will continue to run only on Apple hardware, they won't prevent people from running Windows or Linux on Intel Macs.
Today there's not much you can do with an outdated Mac, especially if your systems administrators aren't skilled with Mac or Linux servers. But an Intel Mac could easily be repurposed as a standard Windows server, in an IT strategy known as "waterfalling." And if applications aren't available on Mac OS X, a flexible "dual-boot" Mac could be set up to run either Windows or Mac OS X.
Even with these advantages for Apple, the move strikes some as curious, given the disruption it could cause. Many analysts have speculated that consumers could put off Mac purchases until the new Intel-based machines come out a year from now.
But with iPod sales exploding and Mac sales riding an apparent halo effect, it's hard to imagine a better time for Apple to make this risky move. Since Apple's market share remains small today, the pain of switching just gets greater over time, as the company sells more PowerPC Macs. Why wait until the heat is really on?
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