Opinion: Page (1) of 2 - 06/07/05 Email this story to a friend. email article Print this page (Article printing at MyDmn.com).print page facebook

How Much Time Does Apple Have?

Two-year plan is two years too many By Dave Nagel
Set sentimentality aside. Set aside the pride and the unfounded fears and all of the little irrelevancies I've seen people worrying over for the last five days about Apple switching to Intel. Focus, instead, on the big one: Will there be a Mac platform in two years? The answer to that will depend on whether Apple sticks to the plan announced at WWDC. If it does, then by this time in 2007, you will be doing your computing on a Windows box. 

Heart transplant or just another component?
I'm not troubled by the switch to Intel in and of itself. I've been a Mac user--personally and professionally--for 20 years, starting back on my first college newspaper job in the mid-'80s. I love my Mac and all the Macs I've bought for myself over the years. I've successfully resisted any attempt in my professional career to get me to accept Windows. But I don't have a problem at all with Intel.

Intel is not what's wrong with the Windows platform. It's just a chip, and I just don't care if Mac OS X runs on it or not. That's of little consequence, so long as the chip in question isn't not a dog--as was the G4 at the end of its lifecycle on the desktop, back when I was advocating a switch to Intel and when such a switch would have made sense. (I won't even get into how much more I would have loved to have seen a multiprocessor dual-core PPC system announced at WWDC. Can you even begin to imagine the speed of that? Keep dreaming, I guess.)

An Intel chip inside the Mac doesn't change the heart of the Mac. If you want to take that attitude, you can say the Mac has been dead ever since the switch to PowerPC back in 1994. And, of course, you can point to the numerous capitulations to "industry-standard" (i.e. peecee) components over the years. Or would you rather still be running NuBus cards instead of PCI, PCI-X and AGP cards? Or maybe you'd prefer LocalTalk over gigabit Ethernet? Or ADB over USB? Or SCSI over Serial ATA? (Keep in mind that SCSI-based Macs never had the fastest SCSI available, but you did still have to pay through the nose for SCSI components, no matter how low-end they were.) Or maybe you'd like to go back to the days when you could only buy monitors for your Mac that were made specifically for the Mac, even though, aside from the connector, they were in all respects identical to cheaper monitors made for peecees?

 No, you wouldn't. But if you would, I have a Mac SE sitting in my garage that I'd be happy to exchange for your G5, with all its "non-Mac" components.

And what about the OS? Not even that is left of the original Mac that drew so many of us in. The original Mac operating system is gone, replaced with a Unix powerhouse that emulates some (but not all) of the qualities that made us Mac users in the first place. And I don't even mind that. I'll take Mac OS X over Mac OS 9 any day, even if it isn't everything it should be in terms of the little things that made me love the Mac and kept me, for these last two decades, from ever purchasing a Windows PC. In fact, I've probably only used Windows-based PCs for a combined total of about four weeks of my life, and that has been more than enough.

So, while I'm not troubled by the switch to Intel per se, I am deeply troubled by some aspects of of this entire situation--two of them in particular, and both have at least one thing in common: They could have been avoided. Still could be, or I wouldn't bother writing about them now.

The two-year hiatus
The first of these troubles is the extended period of the proposed transition. I say "proposed" because this two-year plan can still be adjusted to suit reality, which is going to kick in about the time Apple's investors see the company's results for the fourth fiscal quarter. (Don't forget that this announcement isn't going to affect the third quarter much, since Apple's quarter ends this month--though I'll surely be listening on on the conference call regardless. The fourth quarter ends in September.) Unless, of course, investors want to see Apple get out of computer manufacturing, in which case they'll be delighted.

In short, the two-year plan is just too long. Jobs has announced to the world that the PowerPC platform is dead. Yet, at the same time, he's saying it's going to be two years until there's something on the high end to replace it--and one year before there's anything at all. This has dramatic implications for Apple, the Mac platform, users and software developers. And all of these are inter-related.

Most of us already know what an early announcement about new hardware means. Apple knows it too. It means that sales drop off, sometimes dramatically. This is why we don't hear about things until they're ready--or very nearly ready--for retail distribution. New Macs are announced days or weeks, not months--and surely not years--before they're ready to ship. This way you keep your old machines selling.

And that's a major concern for Apple and other manufacturers when they're just announcing minor speed bumps in their current hardware. You keep that stuff quiet or people stop buying what you have on the market until the newer and better stuff comes out.

Now, all of a sudden, Apple announced the end of the PowerPC for the Mac and the adoption of Intel technology two years before the transition is scheduled to be complete and one year before we might see the first new machines.

No, no, no.

One pro user wrote to me today saying that his G5 was having troubles, so he was considering buying a new one to replace it. My response to him was, essentially, "That's a great idea. Later on you'll be able to sell it to a museum. The placard will read, 'Last Mac ever purchased.'"

That's a bit of an overstatement, of course. But who, really, is going to be buying new Macintosh computers when they know flat-out that it's a dead-end purchase? People spending their own money? Corporate buyers? Not likely. We all know our computers are going to be obsolete one day, just as we all know we're going to die one day. But most of us, thankfully, don't know the specific date. Now, as far as our computers go, we do.

This is very bad. This means virtually no sales of computers for Apple until the new machines come out. And even then, who knows if they'll be accepted?

I think they will be, if Apple can get them out quickly enough. Offer them as alternatives to PPC Macs for the time being (although the "alternative" angle is sort of blown now, since we know the abandonment of the PPC is a sure thing).

Now, you may be saying, "Surely Apple can survive on its billions of dollars in reserves while no sales are being made. And, if not, iTunes Music Store Sales and iPod sales will carry them through."

Yeah, maybe, assuming iPod sales continue and assuming nobody comes around to smack the iTunes Music Store out of the top slot. And assuming Apple doesn't mind telling its investors that its dipping into its reserves.

But let's not forget that Apple isn't the only company that has to weather this transition.

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