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Switched On - Macintel: Expanding market share via the chic, the geek, and the IT meek

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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

During Apple's bombshell announcement at its annual developer conference that it would be switching the Macintosh to Intel processors, Intel CEO Paul Otellini encapsulated the profound irony – and yet amazing consistency – driving the controversial decision. The chip maker's president showed an old Apple commercial poking fun at how hot early Pentiums ran. When Apple switched to the PowerPC, its story was at least about the PowerPC's superior power consumption as it was about raw horsepower.

Eleven years later and especially after Intel's breakthrough Pentium M, the tide has apparently turned. The PowerPC chip has been portrayed as the Power-Hungry chip – offering enticing enough performance to court all three next-generation game consoles, but falling behind for mobile computing. The PowerPC may have been running out of steam (or generating too much of it) for Apple's notebook plans, but the company still did pretty well with its notebooks. So the looming question is, what does Apple want to do?

In terms of the transition, the proof will be in the portables. For the average customer, longer battery life would be an easy win; CNet recently reported that Intel is working toward providing eight-hour battery life for notebooks within the next three to four years. Thinner notebooks would also seem alluring, but Apple�s PowerBooks are already only about 1-inch thick. Ultra-thin notebooks like Sony�s Vaio X505 are a niche market and manufacturers are more constrained by the thickness of USB ports and hard drives than processors. On the other hand, Apple might have more luck at driving such products with its design-conscious customers and the company has been known to sacrifice a legacy component or two to achieve a new form factor.


Intel processors may also pave the way for a tablet Mac that took advantage of Apple�s obviously underutilized Inkwell pen input. Today�s Tablet PCs haven�t ignited the market, but something like the ultra-mobile that Microsoft showed at WinHEC could be the kind of exciting product that created the next halo effect for the Mac. Whatever Apple has in mind, it seems as though the transition to Intel had to be driven by more than the desire to evolve a faster, thinner notebook with longer battery life. Poor Intel may find itself with no more cool lifestyle concept PCs to show at its annual developer forum. Apple will already be shipping them.

Then there are the geeks who tweak. Apple is sure going through a lot of trouble to court OS/2 users. But, seriously, since the transition to the Unix-based OS X, Apple has won many fans among Unix users who wished to have access to the Mac�s broad and polished software library while retaining access to Unis programs. Intel-based Macs will be a triple threat, capable of running Mac OS, Unix and Windows programs, at least for those who pay the Microsoft tax. Microsoft�s virtualization technology might even enable Macs to switch between Longhorn and Leopard without rebooting and offer versions of Windows bundled with external hard drives for use with Intel-based Macs.

Such versatility stands to open a new chapter for the Mac in an IT environment that continues to fight against the spyware and viruses plaguing Windows yet craves that operating system�s broad application support. On the other hand, it might end up hurting Mac game developers who will be porting games that can already run on Mac hardware at launch.

All this said, one thing Steve Jobs did not address during the keynote was whether moving to Intel will enable Apple to reach lower price points. For corporate users, Intel-based Macs will still probably not be price-competitive with your average Dell bargain box, especially after purchasing a separate Windows license.

Transitions are taxing and the loyal Mac customer base has already been asked to endure too many of them. Yet, while there will surely be bumps along the road to the land of the little-endian, the switch to Intel stands to be the sweetest of the Apple�s three major turnovers. Certainly for new users, the integrated Mac experience should remain intact, although much hinges on how quickly Mac developers support universal binaries. Rosetta may be impressive and sufficient for productivity applications, but PowerPC applications were relatively sluggish even on the 3.6 GHz system used in the WWDC keynote demo.

For at least the next year, though, Apple will be challenged to demonstrate its commitment to its installed base. Although Steve Jobs noted at least twice during his keynote address that Apple will continue to support PowerPC Macs �for a very long time,� Apple could avoid a lot of ill will and perhaps lost sales by guaranteeing that, say, the next two Mac operating systems (Leopard and its successor) will support PowerPC. It�s a small price to pay today to incentivize customers to stick with you through tomorrow.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.
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