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Apple faithful learning to like oranges

When is a chip not just a chip? When Apple is involved.

The company’s decision to put Intel Corp.’s processors in its Macintosh computers starting next year provoked a wide range of strong emotions on Monday from software developers, industry analysts, and the company’s famously opinionated user base.

For the most part, Apple’s network of developers were willing to give Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs the benefit of the doubt when it came to the decision to move away from IBM Corp. and Freescale Semiconductor Inc.’s PowerPC chips. But analysts were skeptical about the short-term effect on Apple’s PC business during the next 12 months.

Apple did not specify which Intel chips it plans to use in its Macintosh computers starting next year, but an Intel spokesman confirmed the chips will use the x86 architecture. Apple demonstrated Mac OS X running on a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 processor during Jobs’ keynote at the Moscone Convention Center Monday.

This will require Apple software developers to make new versions of their products for the x86 architecture. This level of complexity will depend on how current developers have stayed with Apple’s IDE (integrated development environment) and API (application programming interface) releases, Jobs said.

But developers did not openly revolt at the prospect, with many believing that this transition will be much easier than either of the previous tectonic shifts in Apple’s history, from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X and from the 680x0 chips to the PowerPC chips.

The ability to have one CPU (central processing unit) architecture across an entire environment was a big selling point for Nick Savvides, a developer with The University of Melbourne’s School of Physics in Victoria, Australia. The School of Physics uses mostly Linux in its research environment, but has been slowly introducing Macintosh systems in that environment as it replaces older Windows-based machines, he said.

Savvides will now be able to replace his x86 Windows-based PCs with x86 Mac OS-based machines, which will still require some work but allow him to stay within the comfort environment of an instruction set he is already familiar with, he said in an interview following Jobs’ keynote. And the fact that Mac OS X is ready to go on x86 helps a great deal, he said.

For Peter Zinsa of the Kentfield School District in Kentfield, Calif., the move to Intel will hopefully produce lower prices for Apple hardware. “I pay extra for Apple’s hardware because it’s easier to maintain,” he said, citing better protection from viruses with Mac OS. But working in the public sector means that every dollar is scrutinized, and if Apple could provide him with products that are cheaper it would make the budget process easier, he said.

Despite his hopes, analysts said it was too early to tell whether Apple’s deal with Intel will result in lower prices for Macintosh systems.

It’s unclear whether Apple is jumping fully on board with Intel’s “platform” strategy of providing the processor, chipset, and other assorted technologies to the PC vendor, or if Apple would maintain a degree of control over its own chipset and motherboard designs, said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report in San Jose, Calif. Intel’s chip prices are pretty similar to IBM’s, but Intel could help Apple lower the overall system development cost if it took on some of the chipset development work, he said.

And despite Jobs’ confidence about the ease of the transition, it’s inevitable that some developers will have a painful time making this transition, Krewell said. The company appeared to have a solid plan for easing developers from PowerPC to x86, but it will be difficult to support a user base on two different instruction sets in the future, he said.

In the end, it appears Apple felt it had to leave PowerPC to look after the long-term health of its PC business, because that business might take a hit over the next 12 months, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, California.

“Once they get through this transition, they should be able to maintain a competitive posture with regards to [x86-based PCs],” Brookwood said. “But can you spell lame duck?”

“I would anticipate that anybody who was thinking about buying an Apple system between now and the end of 2006, they’ll probably think and say ‘Maybe I should wait and see how this x86 stuff shakes out,’” Brookwood said. Krewell agreed, “Why would I buy software today that is going to run in emulation mode in the future?”

However, most posters on Slashdot, the virtual pub of the IT community, seemed to accept Jobs’ argument that a switch was necessary to stay relevant and competitive within the PC market. Over 1,000 comments about Apple’s embrace of Intel were posted on Slashdot within a few hours of Jobs’ announcement, following the thousands of other comments made as reports swirled over the weekend about the pending switch.

Some Apple purists will turn their noses up at Intel systems, but most Mac users don’t care about the underlying technology, according to Slashdot poster “adamjaskie.”

“As long as it runs OS X and Photoshop, looks pretty sitting on their desk, and Steve Jobs said “Hey, you know, this is pretty good!” they are sold,” adamjaskie wrote Monday afternoon.

Some posters couldn’t avoid finding the humor in Monday’s announcement.

“I felt something, a disturbance in the network, as if a million mac zealots cried out in horror and were suddenly silenced,” wrote poster “m50d,” an allusion to a quote from the Star Wars movie series.

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