Apple Computer will announce its own 'Switch' campaign today, migrating away from the PowerPC architecture that has served it for a decade, the Wall Street Journal reports. The migration will take several years, with the first Intel-based Macs appearing next year, according to briefings Apple has given its partners. Intel CEO Paul Otellini - a house guest of Apple CEO Steve Jobs in the past - may join Jobs on stage at the Apple World Wide Developer Conference later today.
Motorola's chips have been at the heart of Apple's systems since the Mac launched with the 68000 inside, and the company has used traditionally this as a differentiator - shunning the economies of scale in chip and chipsets, and the co-marketing dollars Intel offers its OEMs. Apple currently sources G4 processors for its notebooks and budget machines from Motorola's chip subsidiary Freescale, and G5 processors from IBM.
But the differentiator has grown less important over the past five years with low power consumption viewed as increasingly important if PCs are to be successful in consumer electronics. And Apple has been doubly cursed in its attempts to stay competitive with Intel and AMD. Motorola failed to keep its G4 processor architecture competitive, obliging Apple to overclock the chip, removing its power efficiencies. And when a modern processor finally arrived in the shape of the IBM 970, a POWER4 derivative, it proved to large and inefficient for notebooks or budget systems.
Intel's Pentium-M processor, a chip based on the Pentium III core which dynamically regulates its clock speed from 300Mhz up according to system demand, finally gives Apple an alternative.
Migration poses several problems for Apple and its developers, but far fewer than 12 years ago when Apple first completed a port of the Mac OS to Intel that was never released.
Former Apple CEO John Sculley recently described his refusal to move to Intel even earlier, in the late 1980s, as one of his biggest mistakes. But as we discussed here, it's likely that the main casualty in a migration back then would have been Apple itself.
Today's Mac OS is portable by design, and thanks to its NeXT expertise, the company is well versed in optimizing 'Fat binaries' which run on several processor architectures.
Industry sources also say Apple is a licensee of Transitive's QuickTransit virtual processor technology, which allows anything to run on Intel x86 (and vice versa) via dynamic instruction translation.
The hardest part of the move will be convincing IBM to continue investing in the 970 processor for its servers and high performance desktops, and porting professional dependent on the Freescale's Altivec instruction set. For some of the more tribal Apple loyalists, becoming an Intel OEM may be hard fact to swallow. But there's no where else to go. For the mainstream PC buyer it promises lower cost systems running Apple's virus-free operating system.
Intel CEO Paul Otellini recently said that given a straight choice, he'd opt for the malware-light Mac, as he spends an hour a week removing nasties from his daughter's Windows PC. ®