Apple to Intel: Some advantage, lots of risk

The PC maker reportedly has warmed to the idea of using Intel chips. Then comes the cold dose of reality.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
4 min read
Will Apple Computer go to Intel? It's easy to think about but tough to do, warn analysts.

The two companies have met recently to discuss an alliance that could lead to Apple computers running processors from Intel, according to the Wall Street Journal. While the idea has been floated for years, this time there appears to be a little more impetus for Apple to convert.

Apple also needs a low-power chip, similar to the processor in Intel's Centrino bundle, for the growing laptop market. IBM currently supplies processors for Apple's G5 desktops, but the chip runs on a maximum of 100 watts--quite a bit of power--and dissipates so much heat that laptops employing the chips haven't emerged.

But now comes the tough part. If Apple did port its OS and other applications so that the software would run on Intel chips, it opens the possibility that hackers and clone manufacturers could assemble their own Mac PCs with cheap, generic hardware and store-bought copies of Apple's software.

Apple's hardware is typically more expensive than the machines from rivals because it insists on unusual design twists, such as LCD screens (on the second iMac) that have a viewing angle of almost 180 degrees, which adds cost. Clones could undercut Apple easily.

Accepting clone manufacturers and selling them software would allow Apple to begin to make money off licensing, said IDC analyst Roger Kay. However, Apple CEO Steve Jobs doesn't like clones--he made the decision to snuff out a budding clone business after he returned to the company in 1996, according to several sources.

Stopping uninvited clones, meanwhile, could be tough. One anti-clone method could involve designing a BIOS--a piece of software that links the hardware to the OS--and programming it so that it recognizes authorized hardware. Unfortunately, such a setup could, and would, be spoofed.

"The cost (of spoofing the BIOS anti-clone system) would come to having a grad student stay up all night," said Kay. "The company might be successful in the short term, but in the escalating war of hackerdom it would be a never-ending job."

Apple could also get around the clone problem by devising its own chipset, said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report. But chipsets are expensive and complicated and almost as difficult (but not nearly as profitable) as microprocessors to develop. Most PC and server makers cut back on developing their own chipsets years ago.

Then there is the problem of porting all that software to work with the Intel chips. The Mac OS X is based on Unix, which runs on Intel chips, but bringing everything over would require time and expense. It is also unclear if Apple could port the Altivec processor instructions, which handle multimedia functions on IBM Power chips. Instead, Apple would likely have to find similar functions in Intel's multimedia instructions, or suffer a performance hit.

Krewell added that Apple machines wouldn't necessarily perform better on Intel chips. IBM can produce dual-core chips for Apple--it just produced a three-core chip for Microsoft's upcoming Xbox. The design of the Xbox chip, partly conceived by Microsoft, is owned by the software giant, but IBM could spin a similar chip for Apple. It also built the Cell processor, a Power processor with eight helper cores, for the PlayStation3. Both of these chips run at more than 3GHz, close to Intel's current speeds.

Low power is also something IBM likely could conquer, said Krewell. If it has to, IBM could license technology to make it happen. Sony, for example, licensed energy efficiency technology from Transmeta for Cell. And IBM actually had a license for some Transmeta technology for years.

A switch to Intel also would raise cultural issues for Apple, which for years has maintained that the PowerPC architecture is better suited to the graphics-intensive tasks performed on most Macs. Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller has done many Macworld demos showing Photoshop and other programs running faster on a slower-clock-speed PowerPC chip than it does on a top-of-the line Pentium.

Most likely, the leak over the negotiations is a bargaining ploy by Apple, Krewell said.

"Apple is feeling ignored and feeling that IBM is paying too much attention to the gaming guys," he said. "This is just a maneuver by Apple to whack IBM. Do you know how you can tell that Apple isn't serious? Has Apple sued the Wall Street Journal for releasing trade secrets?"

Earlier this year, Apple sued a blog site for reporting product information before the product came out.

CNET News.com reporter Ina Fried contributed to this article.