Apple And Intel, Sitting In A Tree

    June 21, 2005

For this lifelong Macintosh fanatic, the urge to react to the news that Apple would be making the switch to Intel processors over the course of the next year had to be suppressed for a few weeks.

I had to calm my nerves and control various emotional reactions that may have been, well, other than constructive. I hoped to get a sense of how Apple planned to manage the transition and what it could mean in the grand scheme of things. I think I’ve come to grips with the reality of it, and I think Apple may be giving signs where it is headed. Fortunately for the Mac heads among us, there’s no reason to think our favorite company has stopped “thinking different.”

For those of you who don’t follow the Apple story very closely, here is the recent history of it in a nutshell: Toward the end of the era in which Apple invented Personal Computing and Microsoft came to dominate it, Apple was making expensive, largely incompatible personal computers that, along with Adobe Photoshop and Quark XPress, had revolutionized publishing by putting it on the desktop, within reach of talented creative professionals.

Those computers used Motorola microprocessors, which at the time were the best available. Apple, IBM and Motorola collaborated on the design for a next-generation microprocessor, based on RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) technology, that essentially did more with less and generally did it much smaller and cooler. Five generations of the PowerPC chip later, Apple’s dual-processor machines chew through amazing amounts of data in a very respectable manner, at times outperforming Pentium IV-based systems very convincingly.

Gone, however, is the advantage in the performance-per-watt metric that has been such a friend to Apple the last few years. New top-of-the-line dual-G5 Macs feature a liquid cooling systems and four internal thermal zones, each cooled by its own set of fans. It’s remarkable engineering, but the performance-per-watt advantage certainly seems to be slipping away. This is especially evident when it comes to laptops, and Apple’s PowerBooks, while still very respectable performers, really have nowhere to go. In short, Apple is nearly at the end of the road with the PowerPC architecture, and it’s time for something else.

Great, But Why Intel?

Intel’s approach to performance has been the IT analog of the American muscle-car passion for horsepower, horsepower and more horsepower while European auto makers have opted for other performance advantages that lend themselves to better, rather than faster, driving. We Mac enthusiasts have had our laughs at the “toasted” Intel clean-room dancer guy, watched Photoshop finish applying a raft of scripted changes to a huge photograph on a Mac while the Windows box was seemingly still opening the file and we even marveled that Intel was able to keep pace through sheer manufacturing savvy.

But now, that all seems to be changing. Intel is getting its head together and Apple finds itself keenly interested in some of the technologies on the Intel roadmap, particularly the mobile technology and chip-level digital rights management (DRM). Other recent Intel advancements in wireless networking technology also bode well for Apple’s “digital lifestyle” vision.

Apple is a company about convergence; that is, the company sees itself at the forefront of emerging technologies that enable people to create, distribute, organize and enjoy the things really important to their lifestyle choices — the pictures, videos, music and movies that give life to communication. The iTunes/iPod phenomenon is a living entity unto itself at this point, and although the competition appears to be making some inroads into Apple’s market dominance, it has a long way to go. “Podcasting” is one of the newest words in the language, and it’s a much-hyped offspring of Apple’s Hardware and Software divisions.

Apple’s lifestyle software (and it’s all about the software, ultimately) has taken the chore out of using digital photography and home movies in creative new ways. iTunes and the iTunes Music Store have given control over what music they discover, purchase and enjoy back to the consumer. The company’s professional products, like Logic and Final Cut Pro, are state of the art audio/video composing/editing monsters. Final Cut Pro, in particular, along with the G4 PowerBook, has revolutionized both broadcast video and film production.

But it’s what’s in the pipeline that continues to make those of us who watch Apple giddy with excitement every time Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO, takes the stage to deliver one of his famous keynote addresses to the Mac faithful. There’s always something there, another ace up his sleeve, because the company abounds in talent and ideas like no other. According to a recent Forbes magazine ranking, Apple has the fastest-growing brand value in the world, and Pixar, Jobs’ “other” company, checks in at #9 on the list. This sort of thing is ephemeral (the #7 brand is Red Bull), but it suggests that Apple has its finger on the pulse of a young America in a way not normal for geeky PC makers.

Great, But Why Intel, For Crying Out Loud?

A switch to Intel’s forthcoming technology promises to give Apple several things. The first is lower costs. Apple has been plagued by the perception that its products, while nice, are luxury computers, the BMW of IT, if you will. The move to Intel should help Apple close the remaining price gap with other reputable PC makers. Second, it gives Apple a path to mobile power. The Intel roadmap looks much brighter than does the PowerPC, particularly with respect to energy-efficient processors. Apple needs to breathe new life into its PowerBooks and it doesn’t see a way to do that with PowerPC.

Third, chip-level DRM sounds a little spooky, but it will do nothing but further endear Apple to the entertainment world by making TV and movies safe for distribution to Apple equipment. Apple has similar plans for video that it had for audio and the company is laying the groundwork for this. Finally, it gives Apple the ability to compete, head-to-head, with the real enemy, Microsoft.

It remains unclear whether Apple will square off with the beast of Redmond on the road at Intel Field. Early indications are that Apple intends to render OS X (an Intel version of which Apple’s skunkworks, with the assistance of the Open Source community, has been secretly developing for five years) incapable of running on the “beige boxes” of the major volume PC makers, restricting it to, well, Macs.

At the same time, however, Dell and at least two other screwdriver shops are wooing Apple to let them license and sell their machines with OS X installed as a virus-free, spyware-free, crash-free and ugly-free alternative to Windows Itself. Apple has said that it has no plans to license the rock-solid OS, but money talks and Apple has probably cut deeply into its sales of PowerPC-based Macs over the next year before the Intel-based Macs begin to appear.

Speculation that Apple will match software wits with Microsoft is fueled by Apple’s development of Keynote and Pages, a presentation package similar to MS’ PowerPoint and a word-processing package, respectively, into excellent alternatives to two of the components of Microsoft Office. Further speculation centers on Apple’s legal interest in the word “Numbers”, with the idea that the company may be developing the final piece of the puzzle, an Excel counterbalance. Safari, the OS X web browser is already the most standards-compliant browser out there, is feature-rich and lightweight, all things IE7 hopes to be as it approaches its beta release.

But Now What Is Apple Up To?

Even more intriguing is Apple’s sudden release this week of its superior WebObjects technology for free. WebObjects is roughly analogous to .NET, a framework for web-based application services that developers can use to rapidly create custom net-centric applications. Such rapid, custom development was the specialty of NeXT, the company, founded by Jobs after he was once forced out of Apple, that took over Apple almost 10 years ago when Apple purchased it. A WebObjects deployment license for the server extensions cost some $50,000 only last month. This move alone could create a whole new industry.

This is serious enterprise technology, and Apple has the eye and the software to make things happen in that market. What it has lacked has been the desktops — the mindshare. Businesses are only now beginning to think of Apple outside outfitting their creative departments, and this move only gives Gates & Co. another reason to lose sleep at night. Microsoft knows Apple invented what it does, and I’m hoping that Apple will decide to give Redmond a run for its money across the board on software by at least allowing OS X to run where Windows runs.

Changes are afoot in Cupertino, and the next year is going to be an exciting one to watch. We’re thinking about upgrading our Mac here at CafeID. Waiting on the Intel Macs is a thought; but then again, it might be a good time to find a good deal on a dual-G5. It’ll be enough computer for years to come, while the Intel Macs get up to speed.

Trevor Bauknight is a web designer and writer with over 15 years of
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