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Intel Inside the Mac

Apple to phase out PowerPC; creative pros react By Dave Nagel
It's all true. Apple CEO Steve Jobs today took the stage at the annual Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco to announce that the Mac platform will move to Intel chips in a planned two-year phase out of its PowerPC-based hardware. The move comes as a shock to many in the Mac community, despite rampant speculation this weekend following reports from CNET News.com and the Wall Street Journal, both of which predicted the announcement, citing unnamed sources. Reaction has been swift and, at times, fierce. But opinions are mixed, even within the Mac's traditional stronghold--the creative professional market.  

The new architecture
For its part, Apple sees the switch to Intel as a benefit to the company and to its users. Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in his WWDC keynote address that Intel offers a better roadmap for its customers, as the G5's current manufacturer, IBM, has failed to meet performance goals in desktop models and failed entirely to deliver a chip suitable for use in notebook systems. (See below for more details on this.)

?Our goal is to provide our customers with the best personal computers in the world, and looking ahead Intel has the strongest processor roadmap by far, said Apple CEO Steve Jobs. ?Its been ten years since our transition to the PowerPC, and we think Intels technology will help us create the best personal computers for the next ten years.

 As part of the plan, Apple will begin phasing out PowerPC chips from its systems beginning in mid-2006 and complete the assimilation by mid-2007.

In a statement issued jointly by Apple and Intel, Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel, said, ?We are thrilled to have the world's most innovative personal computer company as a customer. Apple helped found the PC industry and throughout the years has been known for fresh ideas and new approaches. We look forward to providing advanced chip technologies, and to collaborating on new initiatives, to help Apple continue to deliver innovative products for years to come.

Apple is promising a smooth transition for both users and developers. The company said that all of its internal developments have taken place simultaneously on PowerPC and Intel platforms for the last five years. And, to demonstrate how smooth the transition could be, Jobs, in his keynote address, performed his demonstrations entirely on Intel-based hardware (a Pentium 4 system). As for third-party developers, Jobs promised that any tweaking that would be necessary could be accomplished in as little time. He also announced Xcode 2.1, a new version of the company's software development tool that will allow Mac software providers to develop for Intel hardware.

A "Developer Transition Kit" is available as of today for Select and Premier Apple Developer Connection members, which includes a Pentium 4-based system for $999. And Intel says it will provide development tools support for Apple later this year, including the Intel C/C++ Compiler for Apple, Intel Fortran Compiler for Apple, Intel Math Kernel Libraries for Apple and Intel Integrated Performance Primitives for Apple.

 On the user side, for those on PowerPC-based Mac systems, Jobs said that both hardware platforms would be supported for a long time and that software would be available in a universal binary format that will support both hardware architectures--a strategy similar to the one that made the transition a smooth one from Motorola's 680x0 processors to the PowerPC platform. Both Microsoft and Adobe Systems said, during the keynote, that they will be supporting the new "Mactel" platform. Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen, in fact, boasted that Adobe would be the first to port its entire line to the new Mac hardware.

?We think this is a really smart move on Apples part and plan to create future versions of our Creative Suite for Macintosh that support both PowerPC and Intel processors, Chizen said.

What Jobs did not address in his keynote speech, however, was how Apple was planning to convince users to buy new machines prior to the switch. But following the address, Jobs appeared on CNBC, where he indicated that Apple would not only continue to support the current hardware, but to come out with new products as well.

"We have some great PowerPC products today," he told CNBC. "And we've even got some PowerPC machines in the pipeline, which we haven't introduced yet."

He also added that the switchover would be a gradual one, rather than dramatic one, and that the move was made because Intel's roadmap more closely matched Apple's future plans than IBM's PowerPC roadmap. As to what, specifically, those plans would be, Jobs told CNBC, "We'll just have to wait and see."

What brought us here: market share, chip problems and the adoption of standard technologies
Since the advent of PowerPC-based systems--which were launched in 1994 with the introduction of the Power Mac 6100, 7100 and 8100 models--Apple has launched a number of popular computers based on the PowerPC architecture, including the iMac, iBook and Titanium PowerBook, as well as higher-end systems geared toward creative professionals, including the Power Mac G4 and, most recently, the 64-bit Power Mac G5, which currently tops out in Apple's lineup in the form of a dual 2.7 GHz system. But despite the relative popularity of these models--particularly the original, colorful iMac (introduced in 1998)--Apple's market share remains in the low single digits, owing, in part, to the perceptions that Macs are more expensive than PCs, that Macs are proprietary and that, significantly, the chips inside Macs are slower than the Intel chips powering Windows-based PCs.

Over the years, Apple and others have attempted to dispel the notion that Macs are slower than their Windows-based counterparts, referring to the disparity in processor clock speeds as "the megaHertz myth" and citing various benchmarks to show that Power Mac systems, with their slower clock speeds, were nevertheless more than a match for their Intel counterparts. Regardless of the accuracy of this, what is indisputable is that PowerPC development has, at crucial times, failed to match expectations--not just the expectations of users, but those of Apple as well. For example, the first generation of Apple G4-based systems had been expected to top out at 500 MHz, but, owing to production problems from manufacturer Motorola Inc., it came in at 450 MHz--disappointing those particularly who had preordered their machines based on specs that failed to materialize. By the end of Apple's G4 desktop production, clock speeds had fallen nearly 2 GHz behind Intel chips.

The advent of the G5 in August 2003, however, brought the Mac to what was, at the time, a respectable 2 GHz and offered a 64-bit architecture, a 1 GHz front-side bus (which has yet to be matched by Intel) and other performance benefits. However, clock speeds have remained an issue. Apple's Steve Jobs had said back in June 2003 that the G5 line would be up to 3.0 GHz within a year. Two years later, the G5 chip, manufactured by IBM, is still at 2.7 GHz in Apple's highest-end desktop system.

Apple has also moved dramatically away from proprietary technologies, incorporating "industry standard" hardware into its systems, including ATA, Serial ATA, PCI, PCI-X, AGP, USB 1.1 and 2.0, Bluetooth wireless technology, 802.11g (AirPort) wireless technology and the company's own FireWire, which has been widely adopted by manufactures of computer peripherals (storage, primarily) and digital video cameras. On the software side, the Mac operating system itself was abandoned to be replaced by the Unix-based Mac OS X, built on Mach and FreeBSD technologies.

And the company has even attempted to compete on price with the introduction of the Mac Mini, which starts at $499. But that doesn't include a keyboard, mouse or monitor, and its CPU is a generation out of date. Fully configured low-end Mac systems using the current G5 technology start at $1,299. Desktop systems start at $1,499 (for a single-processor, 1.8 GHz G5) and top out at $2,999 for the base dual 2.7 GHz G5 (monitor and adequate RAM sold separately).

Apple's market share has been rising a bit, but it's still locked between 3 percent and 4 percent of the overall computer market. The company and analysts attribute much of the gain to sales of Apple's iPod digital media player, which has attracted new consumers to Apple's hardware.

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