Apple Risks It with Intel

Opinion: Apple's switch to Intel reveals a long-standing motive: Steve Jobs has his eye on a substantial share of the personal computer marketplace.

Recently, I described rumors that Apple would switch from PowerPC to x86 microprocessors as "a bunch of bull."

OK, I was wrong. I apologize to Don Clark and Nick Wingfield of the Wall Street Journal, David Utter of WebProNews, Paul Thurrott of, and all the other journalists I called "dupes" for going along with what I thought was a tired, old, often-recycled rumor.

In my defense, I should say that the only thing these reporters got right was the bottom line: Apple is, indeed, switching to x86—Steve Jobs announced the details at Apples Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday—but all of the supporting arguments offered by the Apple-Intel rumormongers were indeed "bull."

Apple was not looking for "leverage" over IBM. IBM was already giving Apple as much support as it could, with the lowest prices it could offer on the most sophisticated desktop microprocessors it could make.

Apple was not trying to save money on microprocessors. Apple will end up paying more on average for Intel processors than it was paying for PowerPC chips from IBM and Freescale.

It will pay significantly less for support chips, but these are a smaller part of the overall system cost.

Apple was not desperate for access to Intels low-power Pentium M processor, the foundation of the Centrino platform.

Current Centrino systems are nothing to brag about, consuming more power than the original design.

IBMs PowerPC 970FX processor, which Apple calls the G5, overlaps the Pentium M in both performance and power consumption.

A moderate development effort by Apple could have brought the benefits of the 970FXs PowerTune power-management features to the Mac platform.

Apple was not looking for more performance than IBM could offer.

The 970FX is fully competitive with Intels Pentium 4 and Xeon processors, and has a superior system architecture that gives it better performance headroom for the future.

Intels microprocessor roadmap has been in disarray since it cancelled the next-generation Pentium processor code-named Tejas in May 2004; it will be years before Intel recovers from that boondoggle.

The one technical disadvantage of the PowerPC architecture today—lack of variety—is not insurmountable.

Including processors from AMD and VIA, there are a half-dozen different chip designs supporting the x86 PC market. Apple has two.

Although CPUs are expensive to develop, the cost is only a few hundred million dollars each, a small fraction of Apples cash assets.

If all Apple wanted was more variety, it could have paid IBM to develop more processors, just as Sony and Microsoft have done for their videogame consoles.

In short, there was nothing wrong with the Apple-IBM relationship that Apple couldnt have cured with a little money—the same money the company will now spend to buy Intels pricier chips.

Either way, Apples total hardware costs, including research & development, would have been about the same.

Next Page: Jobs eye on the prize.