Apple and IBM: Who Dumped Whom?

A computing landmark was quietly reached this week when Apple dumped IBM’s PowerPC processor in favour of Intel’s CPU offerings.

Before I lose all of my non-geek readers right off the bat here, I’ll
note that the CPU, or processor, is the “brains” of a computer. It’s a
chip inside the computer that does all of the thinking, or “processing”.

Historically, Macs and PC’s have been technically differentiated by
their processors. Windows machines have primarily always run on Intel
CPU’s and Macs have used chips from IBM. This is why software for
Windows can’t run on a Mac computer and vice versa.

The fact that Macs will soon no longer run on IBM chips is important for two reasons.

First, it represents Apple’s adoption of the Intel platform — the same
used, for the most part, by Microsoft for Windows. This is not only a
massive technical change but it’s also symbolic. It represents one less
difference between Mac and Windows.

The second thing that’s important about this move is that it represents
IBM’s final exit from the desktop computing market. It follows a trend
that the company began last year when they divested their computer
workstation division to the Chinese company, Lenovo.

IBM continues to design and manufacture processors for other computing
devices, such as gaming consoles — but more on this in a moment.

Over the past couple years, Apple’s products have been hindered by
IBM’s inability to deliver a calibre of chip that could compete with
Intel’s best. 

For example, IBM hasn’t been able to provide Apple with a high
performance chip that runs cool enough to be put in the small enclosure
of a portable computer. This has left

Apple’s brilliant line of
PowerBook laptops a generation behind many others on the market.

As well, IBM’s supply chain was far too meagre for Apple’s explosive growth. Or was it?

IBM has indicated quite clearly that they have no interest in being
involved in the business or consumer computer workstation market. Apple
currently represents their final link to that type of product.

Apple’s decision to turn to Intel for its processors may have been less
a strategic decision than a squeeze play by IBM. Accounting for less
than 3% of its total PowerPC processor sales, Apple may have been
viewed by the processor giant as a tiny, bothersome client that they
needed to gracefully dump.

Among IBM’s other major CPU clients are Sony and Microsoft. IBM
designed the “Cell”
processor for the PlayStation 3 gaming console and
the processor that will appear in Microsoft’s XBox 360. Ironically, the
XBox 360 will run on the same type of PowerPC chip that Apple is now
abandoning.

Both Sony and Microsoft offer far more lucrative and volume-oriented
markets for chip sales with their popular gaming consoles than Apple
does with its line of Macs.

I wonder if it’s not IBM that dumped Apple and just gave them the
opportunity to save PR face by painting the situation the other way
round.

In the long run, though, what does this issue mean for Mac users? Well,
to be honest, probably not much. It’s far more of a developer issue
than a “real user” issue. The Mac won’t suddenly start looking or
behaving like a Windows box just because it’s running on an Intel chip.
In fact, most Mac users won’t even notice the difference.

One benefit of the change is that Macs will get much faster as they’ll now have more powerful processors available.

And possibly the only truly detrimental effect of this chip switch is
that we’ll begin to see that god-awful, clumsy “Intel Inside” logo on
Mac hardware packaging. And that’s a pity when you consider the stylish
and graceful design elegance we currently enjoy from Apple.

Copyright 2005 Andrew Robulack
Originally published in the Yukon News Friday, June 10, 2005