With a buzz factor that far exceeds its market share, Apple Computer is the darling of technophiles, graphics artists and vocal nonconformist computer users around the world. The world's largest chip company might also be smitten with the Mac maker, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal last week.
Apple and Intel have held talks in the past about coming together on a personal computer. But the Journal report stated Apple will agree to use Intel chips in Macintosh computers at some unspecified date, a development that was viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism by veteran industry analysts who have heard this rumour before. An Intel spokesperson declined to comment on the report, and an Apple spokesperson did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The largest obstacle between Apple and Intel is the incompatibility between the two different chip architectures in their current products. Apple's Macintosh computers are based on the PowerPC instruction set developed by current Apple supplier IBM and former supplier Motorola. Intel's chips use the x86 instruction set, which has provided the operating orders for Windows-based PCs since the 1980s.
Software developed for one architecture does not run on the other without a software emulator that usually slows performance dramatically. Therefore, if Apple was to switch to using x86 chips it would have to get all of its Mac-friendly software partners to port their applications to a version of Mac OS based on x86.
When Apple made the transition from Motorola's 68000 family of processors to chips based on the PowerPC architecture in the early 1990s, the company lost about half its market share, according to principal analyst with Insight 64, Nathan Brookwood.
But Apple has already taken tentative steps in the direction of x86 chips. An x86 version of Darwin - a collection of Unix-based code that provides the foundation of the Mac OS X operating system - can be downloaded from Apple's site. But that is not a full-featured Mac OS release that would be required to support x86 chips in large volumes.
"They could do it if they wanted to," principal analyst with Mercury Research, Dean McCarron, said. "Doing ports of software is much easier than it was 10 years ago. But why would they want to?"
Apple's main motivation for moving to x86 chips would be to lower its costs, or gain access to technology that it doesn't think IBM would have in the near future, McCarron said. And since Apple was unlikely to compete directly against Dell anytime soon, it was more likely that the company was worried about IBM's road map, assuming the report was accurate, he said.
IBM has struggled with yield issues since it became the sole supplier of Power PC chips to Apple.
IBM has also said very little publicly about its road map for PC processors beyond the current PowerPC 970FX chip, which is also known as Apple's G5 processor.
An IBM spokesperson did not return a call seeking comment on the company's road map.
On the other hand, Intel has made great strides designing chips for notebook PCs, the fastest-growing segment of the PC market.
Apple's Powerbook notebooks are based on the older G4 chip, a situation that has not pleased Mac users pleading for a notebook based on the powerful but hot G5 processor. Intel's Pentium M processor was quickly becoming the company's most attractive asset, and without a suitable competitor expected from IBM any time soon, Apple might be chatting with Intel about the possibility of a Pentium M notebook, McCarron said. Intel has also built Mac OS-friendly features such as 64-bit technology and support for multiple software threads into its newer desktop processors, vice-president of client computing with IDC, Roger Kay, said.
However, the software issues were daunting, and the move could also expose Apple to the commodity hardware market that Apple co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs, had long disdained, Kay said.
Apple can currently prevent other companies from developing systems that offer its unique combination of the Mac OS X operating system and PowerPC chips, but if it switched to Intel's chip Mac OS could theoretically run on millions of computers around the world.
This might expand the market for Mac OS, but it might also lead to wide-scale piracy or cloning, he said.
A more likely scenario would involve Apple and Intel getting together to build a video-player iPod based on one of Intel's XScale processors, analysts said. The software development involved in moving the iPod product to XScale would not be as difficult as a PowerPC to x86 transition, they said.
Need to know
- Industry rumours are once again touting the prospect of Apple working with Intel at some stage in the future.
- But the different architectures currently used by both vendors would make such plans problematic
- Apple swapped Motorola processors to chips based on IBM's PowerPC in the 1990s but lost about half its market share
- IBM has struggled with yield issues and pushed much of its development resources into gaming console chips
- Apple Powerbook users are desperate for a model based on the G5 processor but it has heat issues
- The darling of the Intel stable - Pentium M - could be an alternative that would appease the mobile Mac community.
- But software issues would be daunting and analysts suggest a video-player iPod might be a more realistic project.