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The Northern Spy
July 2005

Apple's Switch to Intel

Rick Sutcliffe

The Spy was wrong

about not crediting the rumours on this one. Well, he's been wrong before. Lemme see, back about 1983. Or was it '86?

By this time, it's old news that Apple has decided to sever its partnership with IBM and begin making Macintosh computers with Intel chips. At the recent worldwide developers' conference (WWDC) Apple CEO Steve Jobs showed a stock Pentium machine running Mac OS X Tiger 10.4.1, and revealed that the company had been compiling OS X on such machines from the beginning.

From a technology point of view, this may not be good news, as the superior PowerPC chip technology will disappear from the market except in game boxes. However, given that IBM was apparently incapable of delivering the G5 chips at a high enough speed and with low enough power consumption for Apple to go forward, the better internal design of the Power chips is moot.

The decision is primarily a business one. IBM found it possible to sell faster chips to others, but not to Apple, so if anyone broke the partnership, it did. Intel's chip technology, though not so advanced, is apparently supported by better manufacturing techniques, and a better ability (willingness) to deliver on promises. The brutal business reality is that companies that fail to keep promises lose contracts, regardless of any long-term downside.

One could say that just as politicians can apparently get away with amoral decisions in a democracy because the short-term outcomes need only be sold to voters long enough to win the next election, businesses can make atechnological decisions because their outcomes need only be sold to customers sufficiently to maintain the near-term bottom line. That there are very large longer-term prices to pay in both cases doesn't occur to the decision makers. That the second involves only money does make the comparison less apt, but the Spy takes his similes where he can find them.

Apple's Intel roadmap

isn't very clear just yet. Excepting a few units made available to developers, there are no Intel-powered machines running OS X as yet. Those that do are fairly standard units that could as easily also run Windows (or both). Moreover, the software that developers now have could run on any box currently made by Dell, or assembled in the back room of your corner grocery store from cheap imported components.

The boxes Apple eventually ships will probably use a newer Intel chip ( a descendent of the common Pentiums) that allows for OS X to be "locked" to those specific machines. Thus, they will come off the shelf with software that won't run on non-Apple machines. The Spy doubts this approach can long survive determined pirates, and suspects that before long, altered copies of OS X (Tiger) will circulate as widely as the developer version already does.

What this may mean in the long run is that Apple has decided to transition itself into being primarily a software company, rather than selling both computers and operating systems. In other words, this may be the next step in taking on Microsoft more directly than, say, dell If so, look for Apple to produce its own productivity applications to compete directly with Word and Excel.

The machines Apple produces will almost certainly be able to run Windows software as well as OS X-based programs. One approach might be to allow this beneath an OS X umbrella so that its security advantages is maintained. (Remember, there are over 60 000 Windows-based viruses and Trojan horses versus none on OS X, and this is NOT because there are fewer Macs).

IBM's future

suddenly becomes far more clouded. Any hope of a partnership with Apple to sell IBMacs is now out the window. Given that Big Blue has sold its PC business to a Chinese company, it appears to be out of the small computer market for good and all. In the short term, IBM will continue to manufacture high-end servers and mainframe computers for large enterprises, and will (for a time) sell chips to game manufacturers. However, in two years, there will be no IBM-chipped computers left on the consumer market.

Look for the company to slowly migrate from being a hardware innovator to a consulting role, telling other people how to set up their business computing using products assembled elsewhere. There are several ironies here, not the least being that Apple, the company everyone thought was ripe for a takeover or bankruptcy a few years ago, can afford to shake the IBM dust from their feet as the former industry behemoth slinks off into the technological sunset. (A mixed metaphor if there ever was one.)

The Dells of the world

would love to get their hands on OS X to market on ultra-cheap hardware as a safe alternative to Windows. Eventually, they may well have their opportunity, but it could be a few years coming. Apple's last foray into licensing their operating system didn't end well, and ended up costing the company marketshare and many dollars, so it will at least try to avoid this.

We ordinary customers

ought to see the new Macs in a year or so, likely first in the laptop format, which has been most hampered by the IBM limitations. Of course, we won't be getting as innovative a product as we might have otherwise, for hardware will standardize more on the common technology. One could spin this as a "good thing" in that the marketplace will be less fragmented, and computers are likely to be cheaper in the short term. However, anything that reduces competition also stifles innovation, so we'll have to look elsewhere for that--perhaps to new electronic music and book readers or to new wireless connectivity solutions.

After all, whatever else this decision means, Apple hasn't laid off any of the people who've been responsible for nearly every innovation in personal computing for the last three decades.

On a personal note,

the Spy has been telling anyone who will listen that if they're going to drown, have a heart attack, break a leg, or go into diabetic shock, they want to do it around one of the members of Team H.E.L.P., overall fifth place finishers and gold medallists in first aid at the recent Canadian lifeguard championships in Kamloops. Team captain Joel Sutcliffe has a Web Site at http://www.teamhelp.ca.

Arjay's Web Site of the month

is the figures of speech collection at philology site opundo.com. A database of about half the known English figures of speech, this page has nearly doubled the traffic to the site in the few months it has been available, and that's no hyperbole. Try it at http://www.opundo.com/figures.php or at http://www.figuresofspeech.info.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one of which was named best in the science fiction genre for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.


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Last Updated: 2006 11 08