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Apple fails to meet (a columnist's) expectations

Who ever thought Apple would convert to Intel? Not CNET's Michael Kanellos.

Who ever thought Apple would convert to Intel?

Not me. Eighteen months ago, I wrote that such a deal wouldn't occur because it would potentially allow clone makers to produce cheap Macs and make price comparisons easier between Macs and Windows-based PCs. (I also predicted that IBM services would begin to teeter, so I wasn't a complete bonehead.)

When news of deals began to surface last month, I wrote another article quoting several analysts downplaying any budding relationship. They say animals can sense things early, but I completely ignored the fact that two weeks ago my cat started drinking coffee and fiddling with the band saw.

Still, the predictions weren't that bad. It won't be an easy transition. Sales will likely decline between now and June 2006 when the first Intel-based Macs come out, because few will want to buy a computer out of a product line heading for the tar pits. Clever PC makers and software developers, particularly in emerging markets, will be able to figure out how to put the Mac OS on white-box PCs.

Nonetheless, many decisions are fraught with risk and difficulty. The Austro-Hungarian empire originally didn't enforce its will on the Serbs in 1914 because of the all-consuming importance of the sheep-cheese trade in the Balkans. But fear of losing prestige, worries about Russia and pressure from the Kaiser in Germany all pushed them toward a precarious course of action.

With PowerPC chips, Apple found itself grappling with an ever-widening performance gap. Although PowerPC was somewhat comparable to Intel/Advanced Micro Devices processors in the first part of the decade, those chips began to pull away. Intel and AMD also came out with new, faster, cheaper versions at a faster clip.

The troubles began to come to a head with the G5, the IBM processor that debuted in 2003. Benchmarks from Apple touting the superiority of the G5 were widely questioned.

Apple also began to include a liquid cooling system in its PCs for the processor. Apple fans claimed the cooling system underscored the company's visionary sense of engineering. Dan Hutcheson, CEO of VLSI Research, saw it differently. The liquid system added about $50 to manufacturing costs. Historically, liquid cooling is also a sign that the processor line won't be around for long.

When Apple began to publicly complain about the G5 on conference calls, the companies had entered a danger zone. IBM doesn't cotton well to criticism, particularly from allies. "We invented the cash register! We came up with fractals! We sponsor Christmas specials," is sort of IBM's attitude toward the rest of the world. Big Blue started to hang out with game console makers and listen to old Springsteen records on the car stereo. Divorce suddenly loomed as a possibility.

"As we looked out toward the future, we envisioned the kind of products we'd like to build, but we didn't know how to build (them) with the future of the Power PC road map," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said at the company's developer conference.

Oddly enough, Apple has been gaining market share in the past few quarters despite the G5 issues.

Intel has power consumption problems with the Pentium 4 too, but a shift to dual core cures some of that. Future notebook and desktop chips (Yonah, Merom, Conroe) will further reduce power consumption, which in turn will let Apple come out with sleek, small systems.

There will be other benefits too. Intel increasingly is performing more of the internal engineering work required in getting servers and other computers out the door. It makes reference designs and lines up component manufacturers to adopt certain specs. By taking advantage of some of this work, Apple can likely reduce the delta between its computers--which tends to be about $300--and a similarly configured computer from a PC company.

On the other hand, Apple will have to live with being one of many. The red carpet was unfurled Monday, but a year from now, Apple will be lumped into the same courtesy shuttle as Toshiba, Sony, Gateway and the other "not in the top five" PC makers. Acer sells more computers than Apple and therefore will likely qualify for higher volume discounts.

Apple will also lose one more aspect of its uniqueness, which the company seems to crave, so who knows what will happen next? Feeling a bit dejected, Apple may start casting about again. Look, there's Hector Ruiz of AMD, the company might say to itself. He talks quite a bit about the importance of the emerging market. They're sort of an underdog....