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"Macintel" Q&A - Revised January 16, 2006

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Why did Apple decide to switch to Intel processors?

In his keynote address on June 6, 2005 at WWDC, Steve Jobs officially stated that the reason for switching from PowerPC-based to Intel-based systems was:

Because we want to make the best computers for our customers looking forward. Now, I stood up here two years ago in front of you and I promised you [a 3 GHz Power Macintosh G5], and we haven't been able to deliver that to you yet. I think a lot of you would like a G5 in your PowerBook and we haven't been able to deliver that to you yet. But these aren't even the most important reasons. The most important reasons are that as we look ahead, though we may have great products right now, and we've got some great PowerPC product[s] still yet to come, as we look ahead we can envision some amazing products we want to build for you and we don't know how to build them with the future PowerPC road map. And that's why we're going to do this. When we look at Intel, they've got great performance, yes, but they've got something else that's very important to us. Just as important as performance, is power consumption. And the way we look at it is performance per watt. For one watt of power how much performance do you get? And when we look at the future road maps projected out in mid-2006 and beyond, what we see is the PowerPC gives us sort of 15 units of performance per watt, but the Intel road map in the future gives us 70, and so this tells us what we have to do.

So, in a nutshell the official reason as provided by Apple is that the PowerPC G5 processor generates too much heat and uses too much energy to be used in the thin, light systems expected to be increasingly used in the coming years. Jobs is quoted saying as much in a MacWorld article, "[The PowerPC G5] simply doesn't lend itself to PC designs that require low power consumption, such as notebooks and small form factor desktops."

Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller has previously stated that more than half of Apple's system sales are from laptops, and according to a BusinessWeek report, 53% of all computers sold in the US are laptops. A C|Net report also noted that in the US, notebooks have surpassed desktops in the number of systems sold via retail outlets.

This trend is growing rapidly. It is not unreasonable to think that Apple has become aware that the PowerPC 970fx (G5), while most agree is technologically superior, the inability to use this processor in portable systems in the foreseeable future is a serious problem. If you took a look at Apple's current offerings in June 2005, you would have noticed that the majority of systems were either thin, small, or both -- PowerBook G4, iBook, Mac mini, iMac G5, and Xserve -- with only the traditional Power Macintosh G5 and eMac as the exceptions.

By the end of 2007, when the transition was originally expected to be complete, at the time the decision was made, it was not outrageous to project that 80% or more of Apple's computer hardware sales could be made up of laptops, ultracompact desktops, and ultrathin "blade" servers, and could even include an oft-rumoured, and patented, tablet or handheld computer.

It is a safe assumption that Apple won't sell any systems with CRT-based displays by the end of 2007 [Apple subsequently discontinued the last CRT-based system, the eMac, on October 12, 2005], and might even be planning to discontinue the traditional tower design as well. Perhaps Apple even eventually has plans to replace the tower case used by the "professional" models with a compact cube design that Jobs seems to favour connected to an Apple-branded or third-party expansion chassis and/or networked storage for those users who need the expansion capabilities.

However, on January 10, 2006, Steve Jobs stated that the transition to Intel processors will be complete by the end of 2006, a full year earlier than originally announced, so projecting 80% or more of Apple's computer hardware sales from laptops, ultracompact desktops, and ultrathin "blade" servers by that time is more aggressive.

Some other interesting theories include that IBM was unwilling to meet Jobs' aggressive price demands, from EETimes, that Jobs botched negotiations with IBM, from ArsTechnica, and that Apple otherwise would have been unable to keep the Mac compatible with the Trusted Network Connect protocol, from eWeek.

All or none of these theories could be correct.

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