So, sitting here, in front of a PowerBook G4, what is Apple's move, if it's announced later today, likely to mean for me? Assuming the PowerBooks Apple is offering when I next upgrade are based on a future Pentium M processor - almost certainly a dual-core - and Centrino chipset, then I'll almost certainly be able to buy a much faster system, well beyond what Freescale has in mind for its G4-class processors, with faster memory, a faster system bus and faster interconnects. I'll still have a good display, Nvidia or ATI graphics, a capacious hard drive, slot-loading optical drive (Blu-ray?), USB 2.0 and Firewire ports, Ethernet, modem, and 802.11g wireless networking. The machine will wake from sleep just as well as mine does now and probably still way better than Windows notebooks do.
I'll still be running Mac OS X with its familiar features, bundled applications and look'n'feel. One or two third-party apps may have fallen by the wayside, as they did when it got my first Power Mac, and when I ditched Mac OS 9 for Mac OS X, but the core - Microsoft Office and Photoshop are likely to be present still. If not, I'm not exactly stuck for good alternatives.
Downsides? Well, the new machine will probably be noisier, though that's going to happen whatever CPU Apple chooses. It probably won't be all that much cheaper, since Apple's not likely to lose its high-end brand just because it's using more standard components.
No matter what Apple does, the personal computer market is favouring ever larger organisations - look at Dell's growth, the HP/Compaq merger and now the Lenovo/IBM deal - who can deliver mass-produced machines, cheaply. There are niches, and a growing number of them, but even nice players have to have an eye on the bottom line, and a publicly traded company like Apple even more so.
The classic risk for Apple is that by shifting to x86 , even if Macs remain distinct at the hardware level from PCs, it will allow clever coders to figure out how to run Mac OS X on cheap PCs in place of Windows. But that's a red herring. That's only going to appeal to a number of hard-core techies, who probably wouldn't buy a Mac in any case. And it will take a while for all the drivers that Apple won't supply to be written to allow Mac OS X to be freely installed on a non-Apple computer. Yes, it will happen, but it's unlikely to hammer Apple's bottom line. Most of its core customer base are not going to want to give up their shiny PowerBooks just because they can buy Mac OS X and hack it onto a tatty no-name PC clone. In short, this is not the problem for Apple's bottom line that it might have been a few years back. And it leaves Apple little closer to shipping a broad-based Mac OS X for x86 shrink-wrap.
The transition won't be smooth - they never are, entirely - but ultimately it will be no different from any of the others Apple has inflicted or been forced to inflict on its users. Indeed, Apple has a good record of making such migrations as smooth as it can, unlike some other vendors we could name.
Five years from now, everyone's going to wonder what all the fuss was about.