Apple, Intel, and the Aqua-Coloured Crystal Ball

Cnet have published a story, jumping on a recurring scuttlebutt bandwagon, to the effect that at WWDC tomorrow Steve Jobs will announce Apple is dumping PowerPC and moving the Mac to Intel processors. The Wall Street Journal concurs (paid subscription required, but quotes via Paul Thurrot), but Mac gossip circles are surprisingly quiet on the issue. In fact, they’re suspiciously quiet all round, with effectively no speculation about keynote announcements at all, for the first time I can remember.

So what’s my take? I think CNet and the WSJ are extremely respected news sources, and their tone of reporting implies they’re pretty darn certain about this story. So either Apple’s moving to Intel, or two A-list news sources are plain wrong in the most embarrassing manner. I’ll take option three – they’ve been scammed – or, most likely, option four – there’s truth to the story, but it’s not what they think.

I don’t buy Apple moving the Mac to x86. Sure, the G5 hasn’t hit 3GHz yet, but in case you hadn’t noticed, the Pentium hasn’t gone very far of late either. The G5 still at least gives it a good contest, and in some circumstances trounces it completely. Intel are in the middle of a messy 64-bit transition; heat dissipation is considerably greater than the G5; any such transition would require heaps of advance notice for developers, during which time Apple would sell essentially no Power Macs. No, it makes no sense. I have no doubt that Mac OS X could run on x86 – heck, I have little doubt that it is running on x86, somewhere in deepest Cupertino – and fat binaries have been a feature of Mac OS and OPENSTEP for a decade or more. So it’s all feasible, and in practice it likely wouldn’t be that painful for users, but unless there’s something I’m missing, it looks like commercial suicide between now and the time that the hardware were to become commonplace. Spectacular advances in emulation technology may be what I’m missing, but it doesn’t quite ring true.

So what’s the story? I can think of three options:

First: Intel is going to fabricate PowerPC processors for Apple.
IBM are up to their eyeballs in the custom triple-core PowerPC chip for XBox360, the PowerPC-based Cell processor for Playstation 3, and their own POWER6 server CPUs. It’s possible they just don’t have the capacity to manufacture the dual-core G5s Apple badly needs. This is a long shot, but it’s not completely crazy. As I recall, Apple is a full peer in the PowerPC consortium with IBM and Motorola. I’d be surprised if they didn’t have the rights to license the architecture.

I consider this fairly likely, actually. Wasn’t there talk about AMD making PowerPCs for Apple, a couple of years ago, when things were going south with Motorola and before the IBM G5 deal? If AMD, why not Intel? Business is business, and if Intel have spare fabrication capacity they’d be loony not to fill it, surely?

Second: Apple are buying CPUs from Intel, but either they’re not x86, they’re not for Macs as we know them, or both.
It wouldn’t surprise to see a new media centre product from Apple, combining a Mac Mini base-station and TV receiver with an iTunes Movie Store, and a slate-like remote control unit. And it would surprise me even less to see that slate unit run a variant of OS X, on Intel hardware. Remind me – doesn’t Intel basically run the ARM architecture these days? Um-hmm. And some of their laptop stuff is rather wonderfully low-power, too. And you’d expect such a slate to run something like Tiger’s Dashboard – no big deal if it can’t handle Photoshop or Final Cut Pro, surely?

Thirdly – and here I’m going way out on a limb – it’s not Apple who are going to make x86 Macs. It’s Intel.

Intel are not, of course, Microsoft, and there’s no reason they should like Windows any more than the rest of us do. Except that it sells them lots of hardware. Only… what if Longhorn were late again? Like, for example, it’s not going to ship until mid-2007. That’s another two years of Windows essentially not working, before Longhorn breaks lots of things anyway. If you were Intel, looking at likely sales over the next two to three years, would this look pretty?

Is it remotely possible that Intel have persuaded Jobs to license the Mac OS, and an x86 port at that? Apple could easily protect its core markets by not cross-compiling iLife or their Pro apps – they stand to lose relatively little in comparison to the potential gain of zillions of corporate desktops, at Intel’s risk.

I guess we’ll find out tomorrow. Meanwhile, I’m off to read John Gruber’s take on all this. He’s usually right.

[UPDATE: linkage to Jason Kottke (Intel making PowerPC), more from John Gruber (ditto), Fraser Spears (basically doesn’t care, but thinks the PR is harder than the tech), Leander Kahney for Wired.com (Apple using x86 for Macs, because the hardware DRM allows them to do the iTunes Movie Store), Andy Ihnatko (something going on, but a specific type of Mac or something new, not ‘The Mac’ in general), Ars Technica (switch to x86 plausible), Doc Searles (Intel to make PPC). My favourite take, however, is Steven Frank’s.

Incidentally, nobody else seems to be loony enough to have suggested Intel licensing Mac OS X, rather than Apple themselves using x86. So if I’m right, I’ll be really smug. And I’d like to post for posterity the phrase: ‘Mac OS X86’, which is also inexplicably absent from view.]

[UPDATE 2: great round-up of links (except mine, tsk) from The Unofficial Apple Weblog. And, dammit, Jonathan Renztch coined ‘Mac OS X86‘ before I did.]

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