APPLE’S share price surged early this week on fresh rumours the company is preparing to use Intel chips in some or all future Macintosh computers.
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported the companies have discussed just such a possibility.
The move could be part of a complicated PC industry-wide game of musical chairs with alliances breaking and remaking in the run up to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 launch.
Alternatively, the leak might just be part of a campaign by Apple to pressure IBM, its existing chip supplier, to drop prices and speed development of key technologies.
For more than a decade, Apple’s Macintosh computers have been built around IBM’s PowerPC architecture while the other 96% of the PC market relies on Intel x86 processor technology.
This huge market share gives Intel a significant price advantage over IBM. So by switching chip supplier, Apple could save money. This could lead to lower prices for customers and hence increased sales, higher margins or a combination of the two.
However, at the high-stakes end of the PC business, just talking to a rival can give a computer maker leverage in price negotiations with its existing chip supplier.
Either way, shareholders like the sound of an Intel deal: Apple’s stock price climbed 5% following the report.
Similar talks have taken place in the past, but have come to nothing. One stumbling block is that switching chip supplier would not only mean overhauling Apple’s system software, it would also require software developers to recompile or even rewrite existing Mac applications.
Such a change would be both costly and disruptive.
One the other hand, the market dynamics have shifted with Apple’s nemesis Microsoft signing up to buy PowerPC chips for its new Xbox 360. Apple may not want to play runner-up to the software giant when it comes to getting IBM’s attention. Intel may want to increase its stature by enticing the ever-fashionable Apple brand into its stable.
Furthermore, IBM has been noticeably unable to satisfy Apple’s need for a suitable notebook version of the latest PowerPC processors. Although Intel has been wrong-footed by rival chip-maker AMD in the desktop and server space, it retains a strong lead in the notebook chip market.
Then again, Intel’s biggest customers, including Dell and Hewlett-Packard, may not be happy to see an aggressive competitor move in on their territory.
See: ‘Nobody can afford to ignore games’ page 25