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Talk About Switchers

Two rumors have swirled around Apple for years like vultures: that Apple would be switching to Intel chips and that Apple was about to be bought by <insert Big Company here>. Both rumors were utterly preposterous, of course.

Of course.

Last week, the first of those rumors became reality, and if you believe Robert Cringely, the second as well. I guess I should have seen it coming (Apple switching to Intel, that is), but I sure didn’t. After all, there were no shortage of signs.

Apple has had problems with chipmakers (both Motorola and IBM) for a while now. It was a perennial embarrassment that the hottest new hardware introduced at Macworld was rarely available the same day and sometimes not for months. This situation reached crisis proportions last summer when chip shortages forced Apple to announce the release of the next-generation G5 iMacs months ahead of time. Stock of existing G4 iMacs was running out, and there weren’t enough G5 chips to release the new iMacs on schedule; Apple had to explain the gap. Ouch. I don’t think Steve Jobs was too happy about that. I can picture him gritting his teeth, pounding his fist into his palm and swearing that nothing like this will ever happen again.

And that’s just the shortages. In terms of power, the G5 was the apotheosis of the PowerPC line, but in other ways it just wasn’t cutting it. The size and heat output of the current G5 processor basically eliminated its use in laptops. Although the G5 had been in desktops since 2003, Apple was unable to wrap a portable around one. With laptop sales beginning to overtake desktops, it was vital to offer a competitive fast PowerBook in the line.

Those are some of the reasons why the switch to Intel almost seems inevitable in hindsight. It still surprised me, though, because switching to Intel always seemed like a step backward away from the more advanced G5 (RISC vs CISC, Altivec, megahertz myth, etc). For my part, while I never anticipated the switch to Intel, I was so confident that a G5 PowerBook was far away if not impossible that earlier this year I bought a G4 Powerbook. Turned out I was right—there will never be a G5 PowerBook—but for the wrong reasons, of course. Either way I feel like I got it at just the right time. For all I know it may be the last PowerPC PowerBook ever. Ah, I’ve got me a classic.

So what’s the fallout for me and other Mac users? I have to agree with most pundits that for the vast majority of users, the switch to Intel won’t make a difference. Apple will have lost an important technological bragging point, however. Megahertz for megahertz the PowerPC is “faster” than the x86 chips. Without it, there will be no more bargain-priced supercomputer clusters, and Steve will never be able to make the claim that Macs are faster. I’ll miss those Photoshop deathmatches at Macworld.

What got me writing this post is an article by Robert Cringely. I read him every week, and he invariably has an insightful take on technology. This time I’m not so sure. He thinks Apple and Intel are merging and that Steve will in effect be selling Apple to Intel. Every point he makes is thought-provoking, yet in the end his thesis is undermined by the fact that Apple approached Intel, not the other way around. The way I see it, it’s a win for both Apple and Intel, but that scenario doesn’t automatically mean a loss (of any significance) for Microsoft. End of story. For now.

That’s just my take. For some meaningful insights on Cringely’s piece, be sure to check out John Gruber’s reaction.

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