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Second Thoughts about Intel in Macs

By Charles Haddad I love nothing better than stirring up a hornet's nest. And that's just what I did with my recent column about whether Apple should abandon its current PowerPC microprocessor for a Pentium-family chip, like those that power most Windows PCs (see BW Online, 9/11/02, "Mac and PC: Ne'er the Twain Will Meet").

True to form, readers blitzed me with astute commentary. While some agreed that such a move would be disastrous for Apple, others said it could be a good idea -- if done right. And you know what? I think they may have a case. Let me lay out their argument.

"FLAKINESS." Here's the most compelling reason to abandon Motorola's PowerPC chip: It's falling further behind in the speed race as Intel's chips leave Motorola's in the dust. It's true that this race, to a large extent, is baloney, since Pentium and PowerPC chips process information differently. Yet, as Steve Townsend of technology consultants EMA Inc. puts it, "the megahertz myth is a difficult one to overcome." In particular, it creates the impressions that Macs are somehow less powerful than PCs.

However, acording to engineers, top Pentiums are starting to outrun PowerPC chips. Motorola isn't helping here -- as one reader says, it has "demonstrated flakiness" in keeping its PowerPC chip comparable in speed and power to Pentiums. Part of the problem is that Apple isn't Motorola's biggest customer. Plus, the chipmaker is distracted by problems in its core cell-phone market. Despite several attempts, Motorola officials couldn't be reached for comments on this issue.

So Apple lacks the leverage to get Motorola's full attention. That alone is a good reason to develop an alternative. "Having Intel as a backup makes absolute sense," says Andrew Sasaki, systems manager at online magazine and investment boutique The Deal.

NO IDLE EXERCISE. Apple may agree. Several engineers familiar with the hardware work that goes on inside Apple wrote to say that, yes, it has quietly developed a Pentium microprocessor that could power a Mac. And configuring OS X to run on such a chip would be a snap, since Apple's new operating system is based on the same Unix code already powering many workstation computers.

Is this stealth Pentium Mac just an idle exercise for Apple techies? A growing number of engineers don't think so. For one thing, Apple has switched chip architecture before: In the late 1990s, it abandoned the 68K family of processors for the PowerPC. And it made the transition flawlessly.

Now, a consensus is growing that it's time to switch again. "Motorola is just not keeping up with regard to processor speed or technology," says info-tech consultant Matthew Quarneri. "The race is over, and Intel won. Apple will dump Motorola for Intel as their vendor of choice."

LOST CONTROL? Does that mean the Mac we all love could be a goner? Not at all, say many readers. "Apple would never allow its beautiful operating system to run on an ugly tan box," says Quarneri. What Jobs & Co. will do is build a proprietary Intel-based Mac tailored to OS X -- just as OS X is now tailored to work with the PowerPC.

And Apple could still configure a Pentium version of OS X that would run only on Apple's own computers. "That eliminates the clone threat," says reader Philip Grandinetti.

What Apple shouldn't do, many believe, is release a version of OS X to run on PCs made by other manufacturers. Then it would lose control over how OS X performs, given the variety of PC configurations. Users would soon find OS X as painful to run as Windows. "I don't think Apple is in a position to assume that big of a headache," says EMA's Townsend. Plus, he adds, maintaining dual versions of OS X "would be an unnecessary distraction for Apple."

GET ME REWRITE. Some users, however, would welcome a PC version of OS X. That would enable Windows emulation software, such as VirtualPC by Connectix, to run much faster. "The ability to switch back and forth easily between OS X and Windows would be a major coup," says Sasaki. Ian Crooks, operations engineer at Pennsylvania-American Water Co., declares: "I for one would switch tomorrow if they would release a [Pentium] machine."

It all sounds too easy, and to an extent, it is. The big potential losers if Apple should switch chips would be software developers. They would be forced -- perhaps for the second time in two years -- to rewrite their programs, this time to make them work with a Pentium-based Mac. That's no small task -- and could be a disaster for the Mac community, since many of its developers are small shops. And without software support, the Mac would truly be dead.

Still, a Pentium-based Mac is an intriguing idea. And apparently, it has growing support -- not only within the Mac community but in the corridors of Apple itself. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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