The inevitable Apple on Intel post

by Michael Alderete on 6/10/2005

Since I write about Mac OS X so often, it seems mandatory to post something about Apple’s announcement this week that they would be moving the Macintosh platform to use Intel microprocessors. Most of the insights and big ideas about this have already been written, so my thoughts are mostly about, well, me.

I currently have a PowerBook G4 that’s running at 1.5GHz. The system it replaced was a three year old QuickSilver G4 with dual 800MHz processors, so in terms of raw megahertz, the PowerBook is actually a slight step down. Overall it feels faster, probably a combination of the much faster graphics chip and a single fast processor beating two somewhat slower ones. But, even with three years of progress, the PowerBook barely beats the older desktop system.

Certainly, for most of what I do, the PowerBook is fast enough, and I’ve been thrilled with the mobility. But recently I started doing occasional work in iDVD, and I definitely notice that it’s sluggish. I’ve wanted to start using Final Cut Express, but I know that it’s going to be slow. And when I view high definition video streams in QuickTime 7’s H.264 format, I get 12 frames-per-second (the Fantastic Four HD trailer in 720p) or 15-25 frames-per-second (the Aimee Man concert video in 480p), well below the optimum/peak frame rate.

If I was willing to give up the mobility of the PowerBook, I could have gotten a dual G5 system that would be plenty fast to run iDVD, Final Cut, and H.264 at full speed. So on the desktop side, there’s progress, and it looks good. But on the laptop side, things are not moving fast. In the year since I bought what was the fastest laptop Apple made, the current high end is about 8% faster. That’s not even close to keeping pace with Moore’s Law.

So, from my personal perspective, I just want to see faster PowerBooks. I’d like to see PowerBooks get a lot faster, and by the time I’m ready to replace my current hardware, roughly a year and a half from now. If that could happen with a low-power G5 processor, that would be great. If it takes switching to Intel to get it, that’s great, too. I just want to go faster.

Looking at the bigger picture, I don’t think that would ever have happened with the G5 chips coming from IBM. Certainly, in thinking about it now (in the wake of the announcement), it’s easy to see how the switch was almost inevitable.

When you look at the microprocessor business for IBM (of which Apple is only a part), it barely registers, 2-3% of revenue. Lose that business, and IBM is still profitable. Innovating in microprocessors takes multi-billion dollar investments these days. For IBM, it’s not smart business to make the investments it would require to aggressively advance the microprocessor lines upon which Apple depends.

When you look at Intel’s revenue, and the percentage of revenue which comes from desktop and laptop microprocessors, you can see that those are the core of their business. Lose microprocessors, and Intel is not just not profitable, Intel is dead. They are motivated, in a way that IBM cannot ever be, to innovate, advance, produce, and sell their microprocessor lines.

So, while some may lament the end of an elegant instruction set architecture, and some may react virulently to what they see as some sort of betrayal, I’m thrilled to see Apple teamed up with the company best positioned and best incented to making products which will make Macs faster.

As a last bit of analysis, Apple is delivering three key elements for this transition:

These three components, implemented well, should make the transition from PowerPC to Intel far smoother, for both end users and developers, than the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X. Far smoother, so smooth that it may rival or exceed Apple’s prior microprocessor transition from 680×0 to PowerPC. Apple’s done this before, they know what needs to be done, I’m excited to watch them do it.

On a final note, and one I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, did you notice during his WWDC keynote presentation that Steve Jobs was not wearing his trademark black mock turtleneck or jeans, but was a bit more spiffed up? For a guy who had surgery for cancer less than a year ago, Steve looks better, sharper, more focused than ever. I think he’s fired up and dialed to 11. Look out competitors!

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