Analysis: Windows, the next Apple core?

Apple’s latest iMac and MacBook Pro have Intel inside, as the company ends its commitment to IBM’s PowerPC range of processors. This is great news for Apple fans, who should enjoy significant power benefits, but what impact, if any, will it have on the world of PCs?

Apple has played down the significance of the move that puts it on a level playing field with its rivals running Microsoft, but a recent advert seeks confrontation with the world of Windows.

‘The Intel chip: for years, it’s been trapped inside PCs, inside dull little boxes, dutifully performing dull little tasks, when it could have been doing so much more’, goes the company propaganda. ‘Starting today, the Intel chip will be set free and get to live life inside a Mac. Imagine the possibilities.’

Certainly, with the move to Intel, new Macs will finally be able to front up to PCs in the power stakes. As Steve Jobs mentioned during the launch, his promise of launching a 3GHz Apple G5 by the middle of 2004 still hadn’t materialised, and Apple’s PowerPC chips were as well suited to running laptops as Pavarotti is to running marathons. It’s safe to say that Jobs wasn’t particularly satisfied with progress of IBM’s processor division.

‘Apple says it couldn’t get what it needed in powerful, cool-running processors from IBM or Freescale Semiconductor,’ said Frank Gillett of Forrester Research. ‘This should see Apple computers’ performance improve, especially in laptops, which are the biggest growth market at the moment.’

For Intel, the contract couldn’t have come at a better time, given that it faces intense competition from AMD, which last year overtook Intel in the important US desktop retail market for the first time. The company gets a new customer for its chips, from microprocessors for Apple desktops and notebooks to flash memory for the iPod, and Apple has also contracted Intel to oversee Mac motherboard development.

With easy access to Intel’s compilers and native hardware compatibility across its platform, could Apple finally start to take on PC manufacturers on price and power as well as ease of use? Probably not.

The first versions of the Intel-inside Macs don’t come cheap, with Apple maintaining its high margins. Deconstruction of the new iMac by research company iSuppli valued the parts at a mere $873 on a machine that retails for $1,300. PC manufacturers would kill to get away with margins like that.

Analysts also predict that Apple’s move to Intel will have little impact on chip prices, even if Apple manages to double its PC market share to about 6 per cent worldwide.

Instead, the exciting developments for PC professionals are almost exclusively software based. There’s every possibility that the new machines could run Windows, bringing a whole new arena to both software writers and hobbyists.

‘No doubt someone will work out how to run Windows on the Mac, even if Apple doesn’t technically support that,’ said Dan Kusnetzky, program vice president at IDC. ‘It’s always amazing how quickly people look at vendors’ strategic choices and find ways to do what they wanted to do anyway.’

The idea of running both operating systems on the same machine is an attractive prospect for anyone who regularly uses both Windows and the Mac OS – if only to free up desk space – but businesses remain unlikely to try this because support costs and accountability could be all but impossible.

‘It’s difficult to know who would support that machine if Windows was running on a Mac. Would it be Apple or Microsoft’s responsibility?’ Kusnetzky said.

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