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Apple adopting Intel technology

The Mac maker is adding PC technologies as it strives to lower costs and offer customers more hardware options in upcoming systems.

Apple Computer is swallowing its pride and adopting technologies developed in the "Wintel" world as it strives to lower manufacturing costs and offer customers a wider array of hardware options in forthcoming systems.

Though Apple has long been regarded in the computer industry as a hardware innovator, the company is now employing or will soon employ three core technologies widely used in Microsoft-Intel computers. These were developed by Intel and other leading computer companies as a way to leverage the advantages of the high-volume PC market.

The strategy essentially takes the best of the Windows, Intel, and Macintosh technologies and melds them into a best-of-breed box--which could attract PC buyers in the Windows-Intel world.

But the Mac operating system and PowerPC processor still stand as major points of differentiation from Wintel computers. The Macintosh also remains home to an Apple-invented technology called IEEE 1394, or FireWire, for moving data at high speeds between peripherals such as digital video cameras.

Intel inside the Mac

One important mass-market technology that will wind its way onto the Mac platform is the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), an Intel technology for fast 3D graphics. Apple executives say they plan to incorporate support for AGP into systems by mid-1999. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

Another technology that will find a home in upcoming Macs is the universal serial bus (USB), initially developed by Intel along with Compaq Computer and Microsoft. The new iMac, which is slated for sale in August, will be the first Macintosh to include the "plug-and-play" standard for connecting modems, floppy drives, keyboards, cameras, and printers to PCs without having to restart the computer. Macs have long had this ability but used a nonstandard technology.

"Apple is kind of getting over the 'not invented here' thing," said International Data Corporation analyst Kevin Hause, referring to the company's history of avoiding technologies not created in-house.

More important, he said, "they've really adopted something that opens the Mac peripheral market up to all sorts of industry standard devices. If a component supplier is making anything from an add-on keyboard, a joystick, or an external hard disk drive to removable storage, they don't have to worry about supporting the Mac as a separate product line."

Apple started its move towards Intel-standard architectural features in 1995 with the adoption of Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) technology in place of older Nu-Bus slots, according to industry analyst Pieter Hartsook. Developed by Intel, Digital Equipment, and others, PCI is a bus that shuttles data from devices such as graphics cards and hard drives.

Speaking at the company's annual Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple vice president of desktop engineering Glen Miranker said the company will continue to offer faster PCI technology.

The upshot: Mac customers can look forward to a much wider array of hardware options at a lower cost than previously possible with nonstandard interconnect technologies.

While Apple users are quite loyal to their user-friendly platform, the proprietary Macintosh technologies and their concomitant limitations on peripherals are sources of common complaint. "I'm extremely frustrated that people I know with PCs are buying cheap, off-the-shelf AGP graphics cards and people...can't leverage this on the Mac," one developer told Apple executives in a question-and-answer session at the developers conference.

But analysts note the situation is changing rapidly and for the better. "Apple clearly is moving toward open standards," Hartsook said. "It's too expensive to go out and try and convince customers to take a proprietary solution when an open industry standard solution is at least as good and more readily available."

In still another example of Apple's move towards industry-standard components, the new Power Mac G3 systems have processors that plug into zero insertion force (ZIF) sockets, long used on Intel-based PCs, to allow for easier upgrades of processors.

"Apple really needs to leverage broader industry technology and components if it's going to be successful," IDC's Hause noted. "It doesn't have enough volume in and of itself for large component suppliers to create and maintain separate product lines."