Pieces Fall into Place for Intel-Apple

Apple Computer could launch systems based on Intel processors as soon as January, thanks to the introduction of new Intel platforms and upgrades to Mac OS X for Intel chips.

Apple Computer Inc.s plan to move to Intel Corp.s processors appears to be coming together.

New Intel platforms are just around the corner, while Apples Mac OS X for Intel processor machines has been brought up to speed, according to developers.

Apple has even moved to trademark Rosetta, the companys software solution for running existing PowerPC-based applications on Intel-based Macs, according to an application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Thus, with all of the components it needs to offer the machines apparently at its fingertips, the Cupertino, Calif. company should be on track to begin offering its first Intel-based systems as soon as early 2006.

The company said last June that it would begin the transition away from its current PowerPC processors to Intels x86 chips by June 2006 and complete it by June 2007.

Many took the statement to mean it would begin moving over its consumer products and notebooks first, followed later by its Power Mac desktop line for professionals.

Click here to read about how Mac OS X has been maintaining a secret life as part of a project called Marklar.

Based on the availability of Intel hardware and its own software, analysts speculate the Apple-Intel systems could come out as soon as the second week of January, when the Macworld Conference and Expo arrives in San Francisco.

"It wouldnt shock me if Steve Jobs would have one of these models in January for Macworld," where he traditionally takes the stage for the opening keynote address, said Joe Wilcox, analyst with JupiterResearch.

Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., will officially launch its Napa platform, a collection of notebook chips that Apple has been widely expected to adopt at least in part, the week prior to Macworld.

Intel will use the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—where its CEO, Paul Otellini, will give a keynote speech—to showcase Napa, which is essentially the latest version of its Centrino chip bundle for wireless notebooks, and to discuss its Viiv brand for home computers, sources familiar with its plans said.

Although Apple might not use the Napa as a whole, analysts expect it to adopt Yonah, the forthcoming dual-core capable Pentium M processor, in its portables and possibly in its Mac Mini.

"Once [Apple] gets the infrastructure in place, it can use a variety of processor solutions," said Dean McCarron, analyst at Mercury Research.

"That would allow them to scale a platform into multiple price points or different product lines. So its all coming together."

Because Yonah will be available in single-core and dual-core variants, it is a possibility for more than one iBook model, Mac Mini models and later on PowerBooks, Wilcox said.

"My expectation would be that an Intel processor would appear first in a notebook and more likely a consumer notebook," he said.

"The problem Apple needs to solve first is really on the notebook side and the lowest risk would be on the consumer side—iBooks—for a number of reasons."

Software remains an issue for Apple, however.

Even though its Mac OS X for Intel processors has arrived at version 10.4.3, developer sources say, a maneuver that pulls it even with the companys OS X for PowerPC, converting professional applications to run directly on Intel hardware remains an issue.

Professionals moving to Intel-based Macs will be able to run important applications such as Adobe Systems Inc.s Photoshop and Microsoft Corp.s Office thanks to Rosetta.

But, no matter how good, running in emulation exacts at least some toll on performance, said analysts. Its not yet clear how little or great a toll the professional applications will face.

The CEO of Los Gatos, Calif.-based Transitive Corp., the company that developed the technology behind Rosetta, said in an online interview that applications should run within 80 percent of their speed on a native platform. Many have said this estimate is optimistic, though.

The major professional applications converted to run native on Intel Macs may not be ready until well into 2006, due to conversion work that needs to be done by Adobe and Microsoft.

Meanwhile, several of those professional applications rely on plug-ins, which allow them to streamline and automate workflows.

Most Photoshop plug-ins will also run on top of Rosetta. But its an all or nothing proposal. The PowerPC-based plug-ins wont be able to run on software optimized for Intel and thus the plug-ins must also be converted.

/zimages/3/28571.gifDual-core desktops lead Apples product blitz. Click here to read more.

Although Apples own software would easier to move over, making the consumer product introduction first is the most likely scenario.

"Both those computers [the iBook and the Mini] are strong candidates for switchers, for people using iPods that want to get a Mac too," Wilcox said.

"Theres a lower risk from the people moving over as Apple provides all the basic software for doing entertainment and digital media."

Indeed, Apple doesnt appear to be headed for Intel on its professional side right away.

Apple recently fitted its Power Mac line with new dual-core PowerPC 970MP chips from IBM, which it says gives the machines a significant bump in performance.

The company also updated its PowerBook line with higher-resolution screens and stronger batteries.

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