Apple’s late switch to Intel could be a winner: Opinion

Apple’s late switch to Intel could be a winner: Opinion

It would have made a lot of sense for Apple to switch to Intel’s processors a decade or so ago. Today, it is more of a gamble, but it could pay off.

At the time Macintosh hardware was built around Motorola’s 68000 family of processors – an erstwhile great product line that had more or less reached a dead end.

Instead of choosing Intel, Apple chose to build its then next-generation PowerMacs around an obscure chip from IBM: the PowerPC.

Although it looked daunting at the time, moving its most loyal customers from Motorola to IBM-based hardware wasn’t that difficult. The new machines were significantly faster than their predecessors and the switch ushered in the era of true multimedia computing just in time for the online explosion.

What was more difficult was getting Apple’s software developers to make the transition. They had to rewrite most of their code – in most cases the shift involved much more than a simple recompile. Many took ages to make the necessary changes, some developers didn’t survive the switch, others took the opportunity to refocus their efforts on writing for Windows machines. Either way, Apple lost momentum at a crucial moment.

Before the switch, Apple has something like a 5 or 6% share of the worldwide PC market. Today it only has a 2% share of new hardware sales -- if this transition has the same effect on its market share the company will be little more than an interesting chapter in computing history.

On the other hand, Apple still enjoys some advantages. Nobody else makes such beautiful computers. Apple’s hardware makes everything else look dowdy and old fashioned in comparison.

If Apple’s hardware is streets ahead of the competition, the company’s software is simply in another league. OSX, which is essentially a great user interface layered on top of BSD-UNIX, is four years ahead of Windows. Maybe more. Microsoft’s next generation Longhorn isn’t due at the end of next year, when it arrives, Windows users will still be behind where Apple users are today.

But that’s only part of the story. While Microsoft’s operating systems software is good enough for most users basic needs. Apple packs a whole raft of home entertainment multimedia applications with its computers – it’s easy to underestimate the iLife suite, but it forms the third plank of a clever coolness strategy. Apple offers cool hardware, cool operating system and cool applications.

Also, Windows is a resource hog. It swallows processor cycles, memory and disc space. OSX isn’t exactly lite, but Apple is betting it can run much smoother and faster than any version Windows, and here’s the important bit, on the same hardware.

Should Apple’s gamble pays off, it will cream the competition by delivering a faster, better, cooler computing experience on what is essentially the same hardware. Tie this to the company’s iPod and iTunes strategy and you could be looking at a serious revival in the company’s fortunes that goes beyond cool.

This leaves an interesting question. If Apple’s key software is being shifted over to an Intel platform, could it be thinking of selling a version that will run on existing Intel hardware. In other words, will it offer a shrink-wrapped OSX for today’s Windows users? Now that would be interesting.

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