Apples switch to Intel processors… what it means.

This may seem a little off topic for my blog, but long before I was a political nutcase, I was a Mac and Windows techno geek. It is, after all, my day job. so I wanted to comment on the big news coming out of Apple Computer yesterday.

If you’re reading this post, and thus have a computer, then you no doubt know the name Apple Computer. Either as the “founder of the modern personal computer age” in the 70s with the Apple II or the subsequent release of the Macintosh computer in 1984. Even though Microsoft is the most obvious sucess story of the computer industry, it was Apple that introduced much of what we know of today as our own Personal Computers.

Let me explain first what a “microprocessor” is and what this “switch” to Intel means in layman terms. First, some technical jargon. The Microprocessor, or Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the heart of every computer. It is, literally, what makes computers tick. When you see the numbers like 400MHz, 900MHz, 1.5GHz, 3.0GHz and so on these are the speeds of the CPU and thus the speed at which your computer “ticks”. The faster it ticks.. the faster it can get your work done.

There are a number of companies that make CPUs for a wide range of products, not just computers, but only four companies, Intel, AMD, Motorola, and IBM make the CPUs that go into computers that you would buy at Best Buy, Future Shop or the Apple Store. Intel is the most ubiquitous company out there for CPUs simply because it is the CPU that Windows requires to run. Windows cannot run on any other CPU. Apple computers, on the other hand, have never run on Intel processors, they have always used processors from Motorola and IBM.

The strategy that has always set Apple apart from Microsoft has been it’s integration of the “hardware” with the “software”. Where as Microsoft simply sold the “Windows” operating system, Apple sold both the “MacOS” operating system as well as the computer to run it on. The actual “Macintosh” computer and the “MacOS” system that it uses are essentially one and the same… as far as Apple is concerned they are inseperable. You can’t simply go to your local Best Buy or computer shop and grab a computer and throw “Mac” on it like you can Windows.

This tight integration with software and hardware has always been Apples greatest strength along with its’ greatest weakness. It meant that Apple could control absolutely the “out-of-the-box” experience, which meant their users were presented with a system that “just worked”. In the early days, the CPU Apple used didn’t matter because they thought that this strategy of absolute control would produce such a good product that people would have no problem with it always being an “Apple” computer. That was where Apple lost it’s grip on the personal computer industry to Microsoft. Windows was not tied to any specific computer vendor and could be installed on any computer that you picked up from the store. This made it easy for businesses to find the best deal and for personal computer users to build their own computer. Apple survived, but was forever relegated to relying on its’ core fanbase of users who valued the tight integration and were willing to pay a little more to get the ease of use.

And so we come to today… Apple computers, and thus Motorola and IBM CPUs have only about 3% of the total personal computer market. The other 97% use Intel processors.

So how is Apple going to grow their market share? Well the first logical step would be to use the same CPU as everyone else. And that means switching their computers from IBM and Motorola, to Intel.

This doesn’t mean that Apple will suddenly stop making their own computers and sell only the MacOS software to compete with Windows. Au Contraire, I don’t expect Apple to do that at all, at first. What Apple will do first, I believe, is make the simple switch to Intel CPUs in their computers. That way, they still have tight control over the user experience but gain the enormous economies of scale and reasearch and development power that Intels ubiquity provides. This means lower overhead costs and faster CPU speeds for Apple and perhaps lower computer costs for us, the consumer. Apple announced that their first computers with Intel processors would be released this time next year (June 6, 2006).

However, that simple switch is still ground breaking for us users, and it starts Apple down an inevitable path. The mere fact that they use off-the-shelf Intel CPUs means that you and I could build a computer that has the exact same pieces as the Apple computer… except for a few minor components… and run the MacOS X operating system instead of Windows. Those minor components will require software to work, but there is no doubt in my mind that companies and individuals will provide that software… and probably for free.

Or, if you already own a computer running Windows, you might be able to buy MacOS X from Apple and install it instead of Windows.

The long term question is this… how easy will Apple make it to install MacOS on computers from your local Mom&Pop store? Will they compete with Windows and Microsoft directly?

I think they will… and I think Microsoft has reason to worry.

7 replies on “Apples switch to Intel processors… what it means.”

  1. In your commentary, you said this:
    And so we come to today… Apple computers, and thus Motorola and IBM CPUs have only about 3% of the total personal computer market. The other 97% use Intel processors.

    This is not an accurate statement. Intel owns approximately 81% of the market, AMD (of which I am a proud owner of an AMD Athlon 64) owns approximately 17-18% of the market.
    AMD has also been acknowledged as having out performed Intel on technology merits lately.. and has been slowly gaining market share despite Intel’s attempts to crush them.

  2. One other thing… Windows does not “require” Intel CPU’s to run.. AMD CPU’s run perfectly fine with Windows.. and in fact, Windows and AMD have been working closely hand-iin-hand in developing Windows new 64 bit OS software — Intel was forced to drop its version of the 64 bit code and adopt a version that was AMD compatible because of Microsoft’s insistence.

  3. One more thing :).

    Windows MAc OS competing with Windows?

    No way – Linux has a better chance then MAc OS.. Apple has screwed up with its computer line for years… this wont change anytime soon.

  4. Hi, and welcome, Scott.

    Yes, my apologies. I took the liberty of not including breaking down the AMD numbers for the sake of simplicity because I know many of my readers are not as familiar with the intricacies of the CPU market as you and I.

    To my readers…. an addendum.

    Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) makes CPUs that are compatible with Intel CPUs and vice versa. That is, the same software can run on both Intel and AMD manufactured CPUs. AMD has actually produced some excellent CPUs over the past few years and has taken away some market share from Intel. (I have an AMD CPU in my PC running Windows at home) However, Intel is still the behemoth and has recently started to catch up to AMD in the innovation department.

    As far as Apple is concerned, Intel and AMD are one and the same… all Apple cares about is that 97% market share that they currently don’t have (Scott points out that 3% is probably low… yes I was being conservative… it’s probably closer to 4 or 5% but the point is clear….)

    Of course MacOS X will also be able to run on AMD CPUs as long as AMD retains it’s Intel compatibility… which of course they will do. The fact that Intel and AMD compete against each other is simply a side benefit for Apple, as it is for Microsoft.

    As for MacOS X competing with Windows and Linux. I’m sorry Scott… but I think RedHat and the other commercial distributions of Linux are headed under with this news. MacOS X *is* Linux on the desktop. It’s the holy grail that Linus Torvalds has been working towards since he created Linux. The open source community and Linux will of course survive, and will be a key part of Apples strategy with Darwin to get MacOS X running on non-Apple computers. But I think Redhat and company are shaking in their boots. This is their worst nightmare.

    Windows is a much bigger nut to crack… I don’t think everyone will automatically switch to MacOS X… I don’t think Apple necessarily wants the responsibility that would entail… but at least people will now have the choice. And that in itself will be huge for Apple.

  5. Was just going to point out AMD, but see Scott beat me to it.

    Dual boot Windows/MacOS X.. mmmmm

  6. You said in commentary:
    Yes, my apologies. I took the liberty of not including breaking down the AMD numbers for the sake of simplicity because I know many of my readers are not as familiar with the intricacies of the CPU market as you and I.

    Man… simplicity over accuracy???

    You’ve not become a disciple of Small Dead Animals and Kate’s philosophy have you? 🙂

    As for market share and Apple.. you’re not being conservative.. you’re being liberal (normally not a bad traint to have 😉

    Apple’s current marketshare is estimated to be at 1.8%

  7. Haha.. well, ok.. how about lazyness over accuracy. Besides, AMD makes Intel compatible CPUs really we’re only talking about “Intel” stuff right? 😉

    It’s my blog damn it.. I cant write whatever I want 🙂

    And as for Market share… as of March 2005 it was sitting around 2.88% … the 4-5 number is what some more Mac crazy types think, you’re obviously not one of them. 🙂 Though, apparently Apples share of the laptop market was 5% in Q4 2004.

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