Apple's Switch to Intel Tests the Mac Faithful

But users say they have no plans to switch -- yet

Apple Computer Inc.'s decision to put Intel Corp. processors in its Macintosh computers provoked a wide range of emotions last week among software developers, industry analysts and its famously opinionated user base.

For the most part, Apple's network of developers appeared willing to give CEO Steve Jobs the benefit of the doubt when it came to the decision to move away from IBM and Freescale Semiconductor Inc.'s PowerPC chips. But analysts say the decision will slow sales as users await the swap.

Apple didn't specify which Intel chips it plans to use beginning in 2006, but an Intel spokesman confirmed that they will be based on the x86 architecture.

Apple demonstrated Mac OS X running on a 3.6-GHz Pentium 4 processor during Jobs' Worldwide Developer Conference keynote speech announcing the planned move.

The switch will require software developers to make new x86-based versions of their products. The level of complexity will depend on whether developers have stayed current with Apple's technology specifications, Jobs said.

Developers didn't openly revolt at the prospect, with many believing that this transition will be much easier than either of Apple's previous tectonic shifts, from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X and from 680x0 chips to the PowerPC.

The ability to have one CPU architecture across an entire environment was a big selling point for Nick Savvides, a developer at the University of Melbourne's School of Physics in Victoria, Australia. The school uses mostly Linux in its research environment but has been slowly introducing Macintosh systems to replace older Windows machines.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs
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Apple CEO Steve Jobs

Image Credit: Associated Press
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Savvides said he will now be able to replace his Windows PCs with x86-based Macs, which will require some work but allow him to stay within the comfort zone of an instruction set he is already familiar with.

Bill Van Etten, a Macintosh user and genetic researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, said he doesn't care "about who makes the CPU inside the machine. Just like I don't care who makes the hard drive, the RAM or the LCD panel."

For Peter Zinsa of the Kentfield School District in California, the move to Intel will hopefully produce lower prices. "I pay extra for Apple's hardware because it's easier to maintain," he said.

Analyst reaction to the deal varied widely.

"While we can see why moving to a dual-architecture approach may bring some benefits, a wholesale move away from the IBM chips would be extremely foolish," wrote Gary Barnett, research director at London-based Ovum Ltd., in a note.

But another analyst, Jack Gold at J. Gold Associates, called it "a stunningly smart move for Apple" in a note.

It's inevitable that some developers will have a painful time making the switch, said Kevin Krewell, editor of "Microprocessor Report."

And the transition could also be painful for Apple.

"I would anticipate that anybody who was thinking about buying an Apple system between now and the end of 2006, they'll probably say, 'Maybe I should wait and see how this x86 stuff shakes out,'" said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

Tom Krazit is a reporter for the IDG News Service. Computerworld's Mark Hall contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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