Apple Said to Be Considering a Switch to X86 from Power
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
As if IBM didn't have enough to worry about this week as it tries to reassure Wall Street that its miss in the first quarter was a hiccup that it has under control, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that Apple is considering a move to chips made from Intel as the heart of its line of PCs, laptops, and servers. If IBM had not been thinking of buying Apple in the wake of the sale of its PC business to Lenovo, it might be wishing it had about right now.
Apple sells about three million PCs, laptops, and servers a year, and was probably on track to see unit volumes increase this year since it has revamped its low-end iMac product line and will probably see some resonant sales of PCs and laptops resulting from its popular iPod MP3 players. That is, if IBM can keep up with demand for PowerPC chips to Apple, which in the past several years it has not been able to do. Shortages of and delays in future kickers for the 68000 series of processors from Motorola, plus the desire to get the Apple platform on a more equal footing with the RISC/Unix giants of the time, is why Apple, IBM, and Motorola formed the PowerPC Alliance in October 1991. Apple has always needed a second source for its chips, and the fact that it has let Motorola wiggle out of being a second source is what has allowed it to be hurt by IBM's delays in shipping the PowerPC 970 chips, which Apple calls the G5, and delivering the new PowerPC 980 chips, which presumably will be called G6 when--and possibly if, should the rumors about Intel be true--they arrive.
Back in June 2003, when Apple launched the G5, Apple's CEO and co-founder, Steve Jobs, said that within a year Apple would be shipping a machine that clocked at faster than 3 GHz in the Mac OS machines. That has not happened. The PowerPC 970 ran at 1.6 GHz, 1.8 GHz, and 2 GHz; in February 2004, IBM delivered the PowerPC 970FX variant of the G5 running at 2 GHz and 2.5 GHz, which had 512 KB of L2 cache, twice that of the original G5 chips. IBM last year ramped up the clock speed on the G5 chips to 2.7 GHz, which is still shy of the promise Jobs made nearly two years ago. As if the performance shortfall were not bad enough, in that two year's time the industry has become maniacally focused on keeping heat down and has shifted toward adding cores rather than cranking up clock speeds to boost performance. While IBM's dual-core Power5 processors would make great high-end Apple servers, you can't put one in a laptop--they're too big and too hot. And so is the current G5. Apple's current iBook laptops use 1.2 GHz and 1.33 GHz PowerPC G4 chips (from the Freescale spinoff of Motorola), while the PowerBooks use 1.5 GHz and 1.67 GHz PowerPC G4 processors (also from Freescale). This is not a lot of oomph compared to current high-end Pentium M-based laptops, but it is in the ballpark compared to low-end X86 laptops.
What Apple really needs to compete is a small, single-core PowerPC 980 that runs fast and cool (at least compared to the G5) for iBook and PowerBook laptops and for the new eMac and Mac Mini desktops; it could also use a dual-core PowerPC 980 that fits into the existing iMac and Power Mac desktops the and Xserve servers. A low-powered single-core PowerPC 980 would also come in handy for a skinny rack and/or blade server from Apple, too. For higher-end workloads, IBM and Apple should come to terms and get Mac OS X ported to IBM's Power-based server lines and allow Apple to resell these machines in its pretty little cases. And finally, Apple should try to get IBM to allow one of its Power.org fabrication partners in Asia to manufacture PowerPC G5 and G6 chips for Apple on behalf of Big Blue.
And the rumors about Apple thinking about moving to Intel chips may be nothing more than a bargaining chip that Steve Jobs is using to get his way with IBM.
Having said all that, Apple has flirted with moving to the X86 platform before, including Project Start Trek, an ill-fated project to port Apple's operating system to X86 processors in 1992 that was dead by 1993. The kernel of Mac OS X is based on the Mach II Unix kernel and is wrapped with a layer of FreeBSD Unix APIs, both of which run on Power as well as X86 processors. Making the jump to X86 is a lot easier for Apple in 2005 than it would have been in 1992. Intel certainly would love this, although the transition would take time and Apple's volumes--some three to four million units a year, tops, compared to about 200 million units for X86 desktop chips--would not really affect Intel's business all that much.
Apple could probably get much better terms in any deal from Advanced Micro Devices, which has plenty of fab capacity and has recently demonstrated an ability to create a product roadmap and stick to it. If Apple is considering a move to Intel chips, it would be wise to second source with AMD. Or, maybe it would be wiser to tap AMD as the primary X86 vendor and have Intel as a backup, considering the difficulties Intel has had.
It is hard to say what Apple will do, but with its World Wide Developer's Conference due on June 6, you can expect that Jobs will have a thing or two to say about these rumors as well as the new products Apple is working on.