Web Informant #412, 7 June 2005: The unholy Intel alliance




The news this week about Intel becoming the next CPU source for Apple is so full of ironic and comic moments it is like an Alan Ayckbourn farce. The announcement leaves Intel in the driving seat and as unquestioned leader in the motherboard market. It comes at a time when IBM's PowerPC architecture is having its finest hour, as supplier to the new gaming consoles from Microsoft and Sony. Even though Intel has long been known for its power-hungry CPUs and IBM for more power-efficient processors, Intel is getting Apple's business after a power-miserly G5 laptop chip failed to materialize. And let's not forget this delicious irony: here is IBM, pushing 64-bit computing on its most populist platform, the G5, and Apple, one of the first to provide a consumer-grade multiprocessing machine, going to Intel with still-to-ship multicore CPUs and just as Microsoft releases its own long-awaited 64-bit Windows.


And here is Apple, long being criticized for arrogance and closed-architected, gets kudos for going with a more "open" platform that holds the possibly of running both Mac OS (in whatever incarnation that will end up being in 2007), even with a company that is possibly more closed and arrogant than itself. And the anti-Mac corporate culture runs deep at Intel: when I last visited Intel's campus outside of Portland a month ago, I brought my Intel-based laptop with me which has a huge Apple sticker on it (for those airport security moments, I keep saying). The number of comments and odd looks that I got were interesting, and changing these attitudes in Intel's rank and file is going to take almost as long as recoding the Mac apps.


Maybe I have been living in Los Angeles too long, but someone should write a script about all of this.


There are several key take-aways from all this hang-wringing. First off, the key chip in the deal is the cool-and-quiet Pentium M. (Gee, too bad someone else has already trademarked that term.) Perhaps Intel will finally see fit to overclock this puppy and provide Apple with a screaming processor for its laptops, something that IBM has been enable to provide these past few years. One of the reasons I bought my G5 desktop was to have a better CPU than what was (and still isn't) available in Apple's laptop line. While the Mac laptops look cool with their brushed silver finish, the brains inside them are still a generation behind what you can get on desktops. As we all know, the desktop is so 1990s, and laptops are where it is all at these days.


Second, the days of just considering CPUs as a single element in the PC design are also so 1990s thinking as well. It isn't just about the chip, but the supporting chips around it and the graphics subsystem attached as well. Intel clearly has done a better job than IBM in this department. One could argue that AMD has better bus architecture than Intel, but I don't want to get into that debate here.


Third, Intel and Apple need each other at this point in time, but for very different reasons, and that might make for a tumultuous business relationship over the next several years. Intel needs a wedge to motivate Microsoft, who has had the upper hand in the Wintel relationship for far too long. They need to recapture some of the technology luster that AMD has grabbed and re-establish themselves as the pre-eminent force in the PC universe. Apple needs a better processing platform and a way to pack more cycles into their boxes, and also a way to make better laptops.


Fourth, the Intel transition isn't going to happen overnight, and even the two-year timeframe that Jobs outlined is probably optimistic. Remember the transition from 68000 to PowerPC? I think we finished with that one a few years ago. To make matters worse, Apple is charging a grand for a software developer kit: they should be giving this away for free if they really are serious about getting developers on board for the Intel generation.


Finally, IBM comes out a loser here in the perception wars, but not much behind in the business sense. They are making hay with Sony and Microsoft in the new generation of consoles to come out later this year and next, and chances are they will sell more gaming units at more of a profit than they could ever hope to get with Apple. According to analysts, only about one percent of IBM's chip business is related to Apple, which is about the same as what Apple's overall PC market share is. But the marquee value of this one percent is huge and noticeable, as all the press this week has shown.


My take on this is best summed up with a look at Microsoft's booth at E3 last month, where they were running the latest Xbox 360 demos on Apple G5s (of course, they were concealed from easy viewing, but they were there). Again, the ironies of Microsoft using Macintoshes to run the latest gaming products on a box that will come from IBM technology: it almost makes you wish for those simple days back when IBM and Microsoft were developing OS/2. But we all know what happened there, and hopefully Intel and Apple will have a better time of things.


David Strom


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Entire contents copyright 2005 by David Strom, Inc.