Apples Dangerous Game May Mean Big Gains

Opinion: Though the switch from IBM to Intel processors may offend some customers, Apple will probably gain more than it loses.

Philippe Kahn, the founder of Borland, once gave me a very good piece of advice: "Dont ever give your customers a reason to reconsider."

Why? Because when customers are forced to think about their buying decisions, some of them are going to shop elsewhere.

Apple is a good example of this. In the past when it has made big platform changes—Apple II to Macintosh, Motorola 68000 processors to PowerPC, OS 9 to Unix-based OS X—the company has always lost market share in the aftermath.

So why is Apple shooting itself in the foot yet again? Because Steve Jobs thinks he can dodge the bullet this time. More than that, Steve seems to be counting on the new Intel relationship to create many new opportunities for Apple hardware. Not the least of these will be the opportunity to build portables that wont burn a hole in the customers lap, something not possible with IBMs PowerPC G5 processor.

In important ways, Apple is downplaying the importance of going Intel inside. What, after all, is really going to change? Apple has been compiling Mac OS X for Intel processors for about five years now, so the operating system probably wont change very much to support the new processors.

At the "Mactel" announcement, Apple made a great show of how easily a Mac OS X application, written using Apple-provided tools, could be ported to an Intel processor. Representatives showed how current applications could recompile on the fly, so the apps we already own will run on the future Intel-based hardware.

Phil Schiller, Apples marketing boss, explained that the announcement itself wasnt about Intel machines running Mac operating systems, but about Macs built using Intel processors. Thats an important distinction, because it seems to rule out Mac clones and, probably, dual-boot machines capable of running both Mac OS X and Windows, selectable at start-up.

Just because Apple is moving to Intel doesnt mean future Macs will be built around precisely the same chips as future PCs. This strategy would allow Apple to move to Intel while still having complete control over its hardware platform.

If the transition goes according to Apples plan, the switch from IBM to Intel could go almost unnoticed by Mac users. Of course, there is still the issue of all those programs developed using Metrowerks coding tools, which Apple seems to be dissing these days since its convenient to do so. Thats sad because Metrowerks has always been good to Apple … in retrospect, perhaps too good. It is not immediately clear how big a challenge porting these apps will pose.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about Microsofts software development plans for the new Mac.

So Apple is wise in delaying the migration of its high-end hardware to Intel chips until 2007. That will give many third-party developers extra time to get their applications rewritten.

I expect some developers will use the shift to Intel as a reason to say adios to the mercurial Apple, which seems as interested in beheading third-party developers as in befriending them. Some companies with Windows versions of Mac applications have already been pushing Microsoft over Apple for quite some time.

It would not surprise me to see at least one major player announce a transition strategy for its customers, allowing them to move to Windows as easily as possible.

I am tempted to go a bit farther with this prediction, but also dont want to slide too far out onto the branch. So, rather than say this is going to happen, Ill say only that Mac software vendors must be considering all their options right now. Both Adobe and Microsoft have, however, come out with statements supporting the switch to Intel processors.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about Adobes support for Apples switch to Intel.

Consumer Macs are supposed to begin the migration to Intel processors in about a year. This is possible, in part, because much of the software used in these boxes is written by Apple itself. That consumer software can, presumably, be ported to Intel chips more quickly than third-party business applications.

Is the switch from IBM to Intel inside enough to cause Apple customers to reconsider their commitment to the platform? Certainly.

But it also gives Apple many more processors to choose from, potentially lowering hardware pricing, and positions Apple to use Intel technology in its next-generation media hubs and—dare I say it—new consumer devices.

My bet is that Apples move to Intel will result in big improvements to Apples product line. This will cause more Windows users to reconsider their platform choice than it will cause Mac users to do the same. If that happens, this could be the first major transition in which Apple actually gains market share.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers.

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