Apple's Switch, Part I

Steve Jobs announced today that Apple will completely switch to Intel CPUs in Macintosh computers starting next year. Here's what everyone wants to happen, with the reality of each:

  1. Apple computers will be faster.

    IBM has had trouble ramping up PowerPC speed for Apple, and they've prevented Apple from delivering the 3 GHz G5 that Steve Jobs promised two years ago. Switching to the x86 architecture allows Apple to use high-speed Intel or AMD CPUs.

    But the G5's clock speed hasn't been Apple's biggest problem. They've been pushing the G4 far beyond its original design in the new Powerbooks and Mac minis. The G5 is simply too hot-running and power-hungry to fit well in a small computer with very little cooling - especially if it needs to run on battery power. But the Pentium M, especially its upcoming core revision, is a perfect fit: a high-performance CPU that consumes very little power and produces very little heat. The Pentium M could significantly improve Powerbooks and iBooks.

    Reality: This is true. With the R&D budgets and mass production scales of Intel and AMD, the x86 architecture consistently produces very fast chips. While the G5 may have been faster than the P4 initially, it hasn't held up anytime recently.

  2. Apple computers will be cheaper.

    Since you can usually assemble a top-of-the-line x86 system for less than $1000 from Newegg, doesn't this mean that Apple can sell the upcoming Power Macs for the same price?

    Of course they could. But Apple makes a significant profit (often as high as 50%) on their hardware. It would be very difficult to convince the Apple board (and Jobs) to restructure their entire pricing model to make less money on each system.

    Reality: Unlikely. Why sell a computer for $999 when you can sell almost as many for $2999?

  3. OS X will run on any PC hardware.

    While I would love to see Apple convert to an operating-system and software company, I just don't see this happening.

    Macs have their own custom BIOSes on motherboards and video cards. They could use this to prevent OS X from running on unapproved hardware. In addition, they will be a significant enough Intel customer to possibly convince Intel to custom-make the Mac x86 chips. It wouldn't be too unreasonable to slightly change the socket, for instance, or add a special hardware authentication mechanism so that you couldn't buy cheap Newegg parts and assemble a Mac.

    Plus, one of the ways Apple keeps their computers so stable with such well-designed hardware is that they don't need to guarantee compatibility with every peripheral and chipset on the market. Windows has to work with everything, including the $29 motherboards from that strange Korean company nobody has ever heard about.

    Reality: Unlikely. Even if people hack around any protections in place by Apple, we still won't have drivers for all of the hardware we want to use. And that's a good thing for OS X.