New online reports that Apple Computer Inc. will cashier IBM PowerPC chips for Intel processors kicked up a whirlwind of contention on the Web this weekend.
According to a story posted Friday night by News.com, Apple CEO Steve Jobs will announce a phase-out of IBM CPUs during his Worldwide Developers Conference keynote address Monday in San Francisco. The story, which follows a recent report about a possible Apple-Intel rapprochement by the Wall Street Journal, contends that Apple will introduce an Intel-based Mac mini in mid-2006 and follow it with Intel Power Macs a year later.
A week prior, an article in the Wall Street Journal stated that Apple and Intel were in talks on the topic of Apple using Intel CPUs in its products in place of the PowerPC. The PowerPC G4 in the PowerBook and iBook line of laptops are currently produced by Freescale Semiconductor (formerly Motorolas chip group). The PowerPC 970, called the G5, is made by IBM.
Apple and the processor makers declined to comment on the News.com story and an Apple spokeswoman called the WSJ report “rumor and speculation.”
Microprocessor analysts expressed surprise over the continuing reports.
“Its a bunch of bull,” Peter Glaskowsky, analyst for The Envisioneering Group, in Seaford, N.Y., told Ziff Davis Internet News. “Firstly, Apple certainly pays much less for IBM and Freescale processors than Intel charges for comparable chips. Probably less than half as much on average. The G5 is a smaller, more efficient chip than the Pentium 4, and IBM has no other customers willing to buy large quantities.”
Still, most chip industry analysts recently contacted said most anything is possible when it comes to Apple Computer. The company and its CEO were unpredictable, the insiders said.
Initial reactions from technically savvy Web sites was one of cautious skepticism.
Eric Bangerman, writing for Ars Technica, expressed concern over the “huge undertaking” the architecture shift would require, including recompiling and redesigning all Mac OS X applications. In addition, he noted, Apple would have to support and maintain two code bases for its operating system, as well as entirely different families of hardware.
However, he ended by saying the move was “in the realm of possibility,” given IBMs recent problems in achieving higher processor speeds and reports of “Marklar,” an x86-compatible version of Mac OS X. Still, Bangerman was “not 100 percent sold”.
On Ars Technicas Machintoshian Achaia, a message board targeted at Mac users, the reactions ranged from curious to violently opposed. Some assumed the News.com sources more correctly were referring to Apple making a deal with Intel for use of a processor made by ARM Ltd., which Intel owns, perhaps for a new iPod, or for a WiMAX chip. Apple has a long history with ARM, which made the chip used in Apples Newton handheld.
A few posters, such as Ssamani, noted that developers on OpenStep, Mac OS Xs direct ancestor, could create “fat binaries” of applications, allowing one development process to create programs that could run on multiple architectures, including Motorolas 68000 architecture and Intels x86.
This capability, however, would apply only to applications built in Apples object-oriented Cocoa environment, which is only one of those available to current Mac OS X developers. Many major applications, such as Microsoft Corp.s Office suite and Adobe Systems Inc.s Photoshop, are created using Carbon, a different and not as portable set of APIs.
Comments from the Slashdot community also ran largely to the skeptical side, also. One anonymous comment that looked to be from an Apple developer sounded doubtful.
“I have no evidence if we have Intel based Macs hiding anywhere. But, I do have evidence of the next PowerMac (yah, yah we just speed bumped them),” the poster said. “It means at least one more generation of PowerMacs that are 970-based. Now, it could be we are switching to Intel chips and when I walk in Monday, I will learn all my work has been for naught. But, since I have access to a PowerMac unlike any other, I should also be allowed to know about a platform switch, but who knows.”
Another anonymous poster noted that Apple retains a large part of the intellectual property for the PowerPC design. This information led other posters to wonder if Apples talks with Intel were for the latter to produce PowerPC chips in Intel fabrication facilities, making the “Apple on Intel” rumor technically true, while not resulting in a platform switch for Apple.
John Gruber, on his Web site Daring Fireball, recommends his readers to “pay no heed” to such rumors, though the posting was written before the News.com report was launched.
Gruber pointed to large technical issues with a switch from PowerPC to x86 for Apple and its third-party developers, though he points out that these are not insurmountable. More intractable, he expected, would be marketing: “Whos going to spend $3,000 for a deprecated CPU architecture?”
Instead, Gruber posited that reports of Apple/Intel talks could more-accurately be for other Intel parts.
“[I]t is entirely possible that Apple is planning to use Intel chips, but for something other than Mac CPUs. Perhaps a next-generation iPod, or a new iPod-like consumer electronics media gadget. Or maybe a next-generation AirPort system, with higher bandwidth and range, based on WiMAX. Such a deal would make perfect sense—Intel makes great chips, and Apple has been making great new products other than Macs.”
At the same time, the News.com report puts the traditional Mac rumor sites in a topsy-turvy position. While AppleInsider takes the report, and a brief Wall Street Journal note, at face value, Mac OS Rumors, which has a reputation among the Mac cognoscenti as wild-eyed, wrote, “And although we agree that something is definitely up for Apple and Intel at next weeks WWDC conference, were not so sure its as simple as a switch to x86.”
Most analysts remain skeptical of the idea of Apple using Intel CPUs at all. In a Reuters report Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of newsletter Microprocessor Report, said any discussion between Apple and Intel was to put pressure on IBM to fix its production problems.
The problems Krewell referred to are IBMs slow development pace of the PowerPC chip. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the Power Mac G5 in 2003, he promised that within a year, the 2GHz models would be surpassed by 3GHz models. This did not come to pass.
Recently, Apple updated the Power Mac G5 family with the top model clocking in at 2.7GHz. Industry analysts noted that IBM, the current manufacturer of the PowerPC 970 has experienced troubles moving to a smaller-scale process and its impeding speed increases.
Though this fact is slim circumstantial support for Apple seeking a new processor vendor, Mac insiders noted that when a similar speed blockage occurred when Motorola (now Freescale) stalled out its PowerPC G4 development in the late 1990s, Apple recruited IBM as an alternate manufacturer.
Editors Note: David Morgenstern provided additional reporting for this story.