news / tech talk

Apple Intel Processors

by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

Most people have heard by now that Apple (and by Apple I mean Steve Jobs) has made the decision to switch from the PowerPC processor produced by IBM to the x86 processor produced by Intel. There has been a lot speculation regarding why Apple chose this path and what it will mean.

Apple has prided itself on being different from its more prevalent competitor. Its part of the philosophical cult that has grown around Apple. So why the change to the more conventional processor? Its probably several factors including power consumption, availability, and performance.

Power consumption is a key factor for hardware manufacturers (which Apple is though Microsoft is not). This is particularly true for laptops since they are often operated on battery power and because laptops are outgrowing desktop sales at a rapid pace. Intel has been aggressively researching low power consumption products for some time while IBM has a much more limited market for low power consumption processors. The PowerPC processor is used in IBM's own line of servers, Apple's systems, and variants are used in several customized applications including both Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's Playstation 3. However, none of these systems require especially low power consumption.

Availability is another key point. Apple has had issues with availability of processors in the past because the PowerPC processor is a low volume product compared to Intel processors. Switching to Intel virtually guarantees that Apple will have access to as many processors as they can sell.

Performance is one more reason Apple may be making the switch. Although the PowerPC processor is actually quite capable and easily comparable to Intel's processors now, Intel tends to increase their processor performance much more frequently than IBM. In the past, Apple has been saddled with slower processors for quite some time while Intel based competitors enjoyed a healthy performance advantage.

Beyond these factors, Apple has likely gained several other advantages from the processor switch. One of those advantages is cost. Apple likely gained a significant discount from Intel for choosing their processor line and specifically excluding Intel's competitor AMD. This should allow Apple to reduce their product costs as they gear up to become a larger market player on the tail of their iPod-based popularity. Another advantage is a larger set of existing software development libraries and compilers. Apple's operating system is based in part on FreeBSD (a Unix-like system). Access to additional optimized development libraries can only help Apple's OS and application performance.

So how will this affect the consumer? Well, Apple should become more attractive to the average user if the cost of Apple products drop and their performance keeps pace with their competition. It will put Apple's admittedly sleeker designs into reach for more people. It will therefore definitely add to Apple's consumer market share. However, A large part of the PC market is corporate and while Apple will be more competitive in several respects, it will face an uphill battle with many IT departments reluctant to support another baseline and set of applications. Applications will also be a weak point for Apple. There are many good applications available for Apple including the mainstay MS Office, but there are many more for Microsoft's operating system and convincing people to switch for less functionality will still be a challenge.

Still, it will be good for Microsoft to face some competition and while Linux on the desktop is an admirable goal, it's still a long way from reality for most people.

Lee Le Clair is the CTO at Ephibian. His Tech Talk column appears the third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business