Apples Talks with Intel Raise Eyebrows

Opinion: Unless Apple believes that IBM's commitment to PowerPC is wavering, then jumping ship while there is still room for development of the G5 series appears an unlikely move.

The Wall Street Journals story that Apple is in talks with Intel over the possibility of using its processors in the Mac represent arguably the most solid confirmation yet of long-term reports that the chip maker has been angling for one of the few remaining markets that have resisted its charms, and that Apple has been not entirely faithful to its PowerPC partners.

There have been sightings of an Intel port of Mac OS X before.

In August 2002, published a long and detailed report on Marklar, a secret project lurking in the Apple labs to maintain an Intel-compatible Mac OS X in step with the current PowerPC version—at the time, the recently released OS X 10.2 Jaguar.

However, little has been heard of Marklar since and some had assumed that the adoption of the IBM PowerPC 970—AKA G5—meant that the project had either been canned entirely or relegated to a sideline, acting as insurance policy in case IBM lost confidence in the PowerPC.

On its release, the performance boost delivered by the PowerPC 970 lifted the Mac from the doldrums into the big league of desktop performance, and ensured that Apples power-hungry customers in publishing and video continued to buy its high-end products.

As the chip has migrated down the product line into the consumer desktops in the shape of the iMac G5, it has also helped to ensure that Apple has remained competitive against low-cost versions of the Pentium 4 and AMD Athlon processors.

Since its release, Apple has faced two problems with the G5.

The first is that development of the chip has been slower than expected, with Steve Jobs forced to backtrack from his promise at 2003s Worldwide Developer Conference that there would be a desktop Mac clocked at 3GHz within 12 months.

In fact, although its been widely perceived that IBM has been slow to upgrade the PowerPC 970, the company has delivered decent speed boosts.

Since June 2003 it has effectively managed to keep pace with Intel, moving from 2GHz to 2.7GHz while the Pentium 4 has been upgraded from 3.4GHz to 3.73GHz.

Yet, with Intel itself moving away from pushing clock speed ever higher toward a future that emphasizes a multi-core approach, its hard to see why Apple would choose to take the risk and expense of decamping from PowerPC to Intel on the basis of whats happened with the G5 so far.

Unless Apple believes that IBMs commitment to PowerPC is wavering—something that Big Blue has given no indication of—then jumping ship while there is still plenty of room for development of the G5 series appears an unlikely move.

Next Page: The fate of Apples portables.