Can Steve Jobs Sell "Intel Inside" to the Mac Faithful?

Peter Burrows

If reports from CNET and the Wall Street Journal are true, Apple will announce a phased move from the PowerPC microprocessor to use chips from Intel Corp. in future Macs. This is blockbuster news in computer-land, obviously--and the best reason yet for this Apple beat reporter to arrive early to hear a Steve Jobs' keynote. Jobs is expected to discuss the reasons for the shift at a speech tomorrow morning at Apple's Worldwide Developers conference in San Francisco--and I can't wait to hear them.

Why? Because I want to understand why Jobs would mess with Apple's Mac strategy, just when he's got it firing on all cylinders. After a decade of laboring to maintain what was left of its piddly market share, Mac sales have far outdistanced overall PC market growth in recent quarters. What's more, there seems to be lots of runway for further gains ahead. Apple just unveiled its Tiger release of the MacOS to rave reviews--at a time when rival PC makers are stuck waiting for Microsoft to finally deliver the Longhorn release of Windows. And thanks to the huge success of the iPod, the Mac is finally on Joe Mainstream's possible purchase list, particularly since word is out that Macs are somewhat less vulnerable to viruses and other forms of mal-ware.

Of course, there are many good reasons for Apple to consider a change of platforms. An obvious one is that Intel has a better record for developing cooler-running processors--a critical skill, given how quickly the PC market is moving towards notebooks and away from desktop models. And I'd bet Jobs will have compelling solutions to some of the problems the change will cause--such as the need for current Mac owners to get Intel-compatible versions of their programs should they decide to upgrade to an Intel-equipped Mac someday.

But in my mind, Jobs' challenge is to show why this move is clearly better for Apple's customers--not just why it won't cause problems for them. While Apple is completing this processor transplant in the years to come, will it continue to innovate as smartly as it has of late? Will its prices come down? Will there be more Mac-compatible software titles, or better built-in wireless networking? Say what you want about Apple's passion for industrial design or flair for marketing, but the fundamental reason for its recent success is that more customers find its products easier-to-use and simply a better value. If this deal is just about getting a sweeter deal on chip prices, or being able to claim the same megahertz rating as makers of other Intel-based machines can claim, I'd wonder why Apple signed on with Intel this time (By the way, Macinsider has a good recap of the recent history of Apple-Intel talks.)

I'm sure Jobs, one of the last "product guys" still running a computer company, wouldn't dispute that Apple only wins if having Intel Inside helps it make better products. But I look forward to hearing how he makes the case.

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