Why did Apple switch?

— 11:20 AM on July 11, 2005

Speculating about the reasons behind Apple's switch to Intel chips has become a minor-league sport in recent weeks. Today, the Conspiracy Cubs and the PowerPC Pirates are playing inside baseball against each other over at Ars Technica, with Jon Stokes doing the color commentary. Steve Jobs told the world when he announced the switch that Apple wasn't pleased with the PowerPC roadmap, particularly because of the performance per watt offered by PowerPC chips. That explanation made some sense until last week, when IBM unveiled the dual-core PowerPC 970MP with very low power consumption numbers. Now we're all kind of lost, it would seem.

Stokes says he has some inside info about what transpired between Apple and IBM and may have led to the Intel switch. It's all very interesting reading and sounds plausible, so I was enjoying the game until I got to the end and read:

The iPod and what it represents—an elegant, intuitively useful, and widely appealing expression of everything that Moore's Curves promise but so rarely deliver—is the Macintosh of the new millennium. There was no need to put on a dog and pony show about how IBM has dropped the performance ball, when what Jobs is really doing is shifting the focus of Apple from a PC-era "performance" paradigm to a post-PC-era "features and functionality" paradigm.
...and somehow I just can't square that theory with everything going on here. Apple's moving to Intel chips because of a diminished focus on desktop PC processors? Because they're less concerned about performance?

I see what he's saying about the ascendancy of the iPod, XScale, and volume discounts, but yikes. If AMD's allegations about Intel's rebate system are to be believed, Apple needs Intel's volume discounts like I need a crack habit. The earlier part of his analysis, which suggests Apple was a troublesome customer for PowerPC consortium members focused more intently on embedded and DSP applications, seems to be the more important point to me, if the question is why Apple would switch the Mac to Intel processors. Some PowerPC processors have been well suited for desktop use, often thanks to Apple's troublesome insistence on custom designs (as he mentions), but many have not. Washing machines simply have different needs than desktop PCs, and that reality has created difficulty for Apple over time. The Xbox 360 CPU and Cell aren't exactly prize candidates for desktop use, either. Intel, I've heard it said, has made a few desktop CPUs in its day and would seem to understand the needs of a PC manufacturer on that front.

Surely Apple isn't subjecting its entire Mac line to another CPU ISA migration because Steve Jobs wants cheaper iPod CPUs. Even a guy with a tender place in his heart for the virtues of the PowerPC architecture could see with clear eyes that the move to Intel processors and the x86 ISA isn't entirely a step backward for the Mac. When those first Intel-based Macs hit the streets—quite possibly iBooks and Mac Minis equipped with Pentium M processors or dual-core variants of the same—I doubt the die-hard Mac faithful will be in need of consolation from the knowledge that Apple got great a great deal on some XScale chips. The Pentium M doesn't exactly suck, after all. The existence of new PowerPC models better suited for desktop/laptop use may be a ray of light for PPC fans, but I've gotta think that this switch could still make sense for the Mac on the grounds of future prospects, raw performance, performance per watt, and price.

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