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Don't expect to see the 'Intel Inside' moniker on Macintosh computers anytime soon, if ever. That's what some Apple VARs said this week amid industry buzz--sparked by a Wall Street Journal report--that the Cupertino, Calif.-based computer maker was in talks with Intel about using its chips.
Solution providers said the notion of Apple switching to the Intel platform is a long-recurring rumor and may just be a negotiating tactic with IBM, maker of the PowerPC processor used in Macs.
George Swords, marketing manager at PowerMacPac, a Portland, Ore.-based Apple specialist, said there's "no chance in hell" that Apple will move the Mac from the PowerPC G5 to Intel chips, at least in the near future. "[Apple] would have to rewrite its entire operating system for it to work properly on an Intel processor, and they just brought out the new Tiger OS," Swords said. "The architecture is so radically different in the Intel processor that I don't see it happening. Somebody just whipped up a rumor mill."
Spokespeople for Apple and Intel declined to comment, calling published reports on the subject industry speculation.
The chief argument behind the Apple-to-Intel tale is that by using Intel chips--which are made in far higher volumes and are less expensive than the PowerPCs--Apple could slash its manufacturing costs and sell cheaper Macs, as well as get a marketing lift from the faster gigahertz speeds of Intel processors. That, in turn, could help the Mac rebound from its historical market-share disadvantage vs. Wintel-based PCs.
But moving the Mac to an Intel processor would be a huge undertaking that could last several years, solution providers said. They noted that Apple likely wouldn't want to get bogged down in a platform transition when it's flying high off hit products like the iPod music player and Mac mini desktop, especially since the company only recently finished migrating to Unix-based Mac OS X.
"There's no way it's going to happen," said Sonny Tohan, CEO of Mac Business Solutions, an Apple VAR in Gaithersburg, Md. "The biggest differentiator Apple has is the PowerPC, RISC-based processor, so I don't see them going to Intel. Another reason is that it would be the biggest transition in Apple's history. It's not like going from the [Motorola] 68040 to the PowerPC platform. That was a big transition; this would be even bigger. And with the market share Apple has, I don't see lots of their [software] developers stopping what they're doing to go out and redevelop for Apple."
Still, several factors continue to fuel the latest Apple-to-Intel chatter. On June 6, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is scheduled to give a keynote speech to kick off the company's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. A Jobs appearance typically spurs talk of the next new Apple product, and rumors include a video iPod, a Mac tablet and a multifunction handheld with iPod, cell phone and/or PDA functionality. Such offerings would be likelier candidates than the Mac for an Intel chip, VARs said.
"Current iPods use ARM processors, and it's very possible [Apple] could move to an Intel embedded processor. It's totally possible," said Scott Schaefer, operating manager at Techknowsphere, a New York-based Apple solution provider.
What's more, Apple has a window of opportunity with Microsoft Windows, which won't see its next-generation "Longhorn" version for roughly another year. So a move to Intel and its co-marketing muscle ostensibly could give a big market-share lift to Apple, which already has benefited from Windows' security woes, industry observers said.
"The core of the Mac OS is not tied to a processor because it's in Unix. So I don't think there would be that many problems in doing that [transition to Intel]," Schaefer said. "You already have an open-source project called Darwin that is the Mac OS at its gut, without every bell and whistle of the GUI."
Going forward, Apple also may have concerns about IBM's ability to meet all of its PowerPC supply needs and may be seeking options, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at The Enderle Group, a San Jose, Calif.-based technology consulting firm.
Apple already has delayed product shipments because it had to wait for components, and the company continues to push IBM to produce a suitable G5 chip for its notebooks, which run on older G4s, Enderle said. Apple, too, may be worried if IBM can keep the PowerPCs coming as it ramps up processor production for Microsoft's, Sony's and Nintendo's next-gen game consoles, he added.
One thing that could bridge an Apple transition to Intel is the Santa Clara, Calif., chip giant's improved PowerPC hardware emulator, whose performance cost has been brought under 10 percent, Enderle said.
"If [Apple uses] the emulator, they would still need a motherboard change and new drivers for the subcomponents that go with the chip. "But it wouldn't require applications to be rewritten, because to the applications it would look like the change had occurred. That's where the Intel emulation technology really comes into play," Enderle said. "So it really depends on whether [Apple] would want to go to Intel natively or through the hardware emulator, which on paper could have anywhere from a 4 percent to 7 percent [performance] hit and still leave them with enough performance overhead and a very low-cost, dual-core part, which they will undoubtedly need to compete with Microsoft."