Apple unlikely to get up and Atom

Intel's latest chip is a big step forward for the company, but Apple has enough on its plate without designing around Atom's low-power-but-not-low-enough specs.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
3 min read

Apple is an Intel customer. Intel has a new chip. Therefore, Apple will use Intel's new chip.

Such leaps of logic are easy to make when you need to construct an SEO-friendly headline, or to attach a news hook to an announcement of a chip that has already been announced five or six times but still won't appear in any devices for another couple of months. Intel is talking up its Atom processor halfway around the world at its Intel Developer Forum in Shanghai, prompting Forbes to resurrect the "Apple will use Silverthorne" rumor from a few months back.

One of the Atom-based MIDs Intel is showing off in Shanghai. Will Apple really come out with their own version? Intel

Atom, the low-power processor formerly known as Silverthorne, is Intel's latest attempt at cracking the mobile market. It will bring laptop-like performance (at least, your 5-year-old laptop) to handheld devices known as MIDs, which should start appearing from Intel's partners this summer, according to the company's press release.

So, will Apple use Atom in a new multitouch whiz-bang gizmo? Apple is a pretty unique partner for Intel, who until recently was used to shoveling new technology down the eager throats of the PC industry. Apple does whatever the hell it wants, picking and choosing chips from Intel's roadmap with no sense of obligation to support the chipmaker's every single initiative.

I'll go out on a limb: Apple is not going to use this generation of Atom in the iPhone or iPod Touch. Atom is a good stepping stone for Intel's low-power design teams, but it's still an order of magnitude away from the power consumption goals Apple requires for those products. Come Moorestown in 2009 or 2010, maybe that's different, but we're not there yet.

So, if Apple is going to use Atom, it would be for a completely new category of device that would be larger than the iPhone. Perhaps The Return of Newton, or an Eee PC clone, or some type of iTablet. Basically, it would have to be about twice as big as the iPhone to deal with the power consumption.

Call me a skeptic, but doesn't that seem like a lot for Apple's engineers to tackle in a year, adding a whole new device category when iPhone 2.0 (both in software and hardware) is right around the corner? And when new iPod Touches and iPod Nanos are expected in September?

They'd have to port OS X from ARM's chips to Intel's x86 instruction set, for one. Maybe that's not that difficult a task, since Mac OS X, of course, already runs on Intel's chips. While Apple might indeed have a parallel OS X on x86 development path, like they did with Mac OS X in the years before they switched from Power PC to Intel, that's a leap I haven't seen made by many Apple followers as of today.

They'd also have to qualify a totally new hardware platform, at the same time they're likely going through the same process with a 3G iPhone. Is that really worth the effort? Truth be told, few people are going to buy the MIDs Intel and its partners are hawking with Atom. They just aren't that different from the UMPCs that nobody bought the last time around, in looks, capabilities, and price.

If you're Apple, it doesn't seem to make much sense to do a "me-too" product--that could take attention away from the iPhone, iPod Touch, and MacBook rennassiance--when you've got so much else on your plate in 2008. But, believe it or not, Apple doesn't consult me when making road map decisions.

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