So Mister Jobs finally got tired of IBM. Or did IBM get tired of Jobs blaming them every time Apple didn’t prepare well for a launch? Maybe Intel finally decided to bribe Apple?
Steve Jobs, head of two of the hottest companies around, declared in his keynote at last June’s Apple Worldwide Developer Conference that Apple would begin to switch CPU suppliers within a year’s time. Out go IBM and Freescale ( what used to be Motorola’s semiconductor division) and in comes the big guy, Intel.
It was hinted that they would start with their lower end machines (aka those using G4 chips) and then transition the entire line over another year or so. Additionally we learned that Apple has had an x86 compatible version of OS X running parallel to the PowerPC version since day one. Apparently their faith in the architecture was not pure. Bet IBM enjoyed hearing this revelation.
Sounds like a serious switch right? It is and I’m sure this frustrates Mac developers to no end. In a bid to prevent a full scale revolt, Apple has put a lot of effort into its development package (Xcode 2). They claim that it will be relatively painless to make old code Intel compatible and, once this is done, you’ll be able to create binaries that work on either platform. Highly customized applications, particularly those that take advantage of the vector processing unit (Velocity Engine in marketing-speek) of the G4’s and G5’s will take considerable work though. As an added bonus, OS X for Intel will be able to run PowerPC binaries using an emulation technology. Steve had a fairly impressive demo of this feature, but it will cut significantly into performance.
Beyond that we don’t know much. Apple did launch a development box, basically a Pentium 4 system in a PowerMac style carapace and a beta copy of OS X for Intel.
The mobile factor
There is no mobile G5. This haunts Apple more than anything else right now. The once mighty PowerBook is still limping along on the Freescale G4 chips. Laptops are the growth area of the market. They have been for a while now and the performance of the G4 has not kept up with PC parts. The G5, based off PowerPC cores designed for servers and workstations, was simply never intended for battery applications. Simply look at the efforts Apple has gone through to cool their desktop G5s and the inability of IBM to scale the chips up to higher frequencies for evidence. The current generation PowerPC cores are optimized for performance not power consumption and this has turned out to be a killer for mobilizing it.
Intel's current mobile chip, the Pentium M, has taken a different route to mobility. Rather than start with a high power chip and try to bring it down to a tolerable level, Intel designed a chip with low power consumption in mind from the start. As Mr. Jobs ably pointed out, the Pentium M offers impressive efficiency and dual core models are due out next year. Think a dual core Pentium M based PowerBook running OS X (and perhaps, unofficially, Windows) would be desirable? I sure do, make my ThinkPad look dull that’s a certainty.
What if Apple wants to actually grow its market share appreciably? Might not supply be an issue? IBM has historically had trouble supplying Apple with enough chips and Freescale does not seem at all interested in the high end CPU game. While Apple seems to be giving up custom processor design, it gains Intel’s ability to crank out however many processors they demand. Intel has a truly amazing chip fabrication capability with fabs all over the world. In addition, Intel doesn’t share. IBM’s only cutting edge fab, located in Fishkill, New York, has to be taxed at the moment. Not only do they make the current G5 chips for Apple, their own server chips, and numerous other chips, they are now in the business of consoles. The next gaming machines for Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all use IBM designed CPUs which will be built, at least in part, in the Fishkill fab.
Why Intel & Not AMD?
This ties together two of my previous arguments, the dire need for a mobile part and capacity. AMD currently lacks a true mobile part and I don’t see anything on their roadmap that would change this in the near future. While they are kicking some Intel tail in the desktop arena at the moment, they’ve yet to make chip specifically for laptops. Intel’s Pentium M chips rule the mobile roost. Neither does AMD have the fabrication capacity of Intel.