Analysis: Intel news hints at future Apple products

At the Intel Developer Forum, you usually see as many product codenames as you do plaid shirts on the tech-confab’s attendees. But at last week’s session in San Francisco, you also saw a few hints at what could be in store for Apple’s portables and desktops.

Intel uses its developer forum to give PC industry customers and partners a detailed look at its upcoming roadmap and new technologies. For Apple users, that could mean extremely power-efficient notebooks in the second half of this year, and desktop PCs with quad-core processors in early 2007. Intel also announced a funding deal that could put Intel processors inside Apple servers.

The week began with the announcement that Intel and Transitive will work together to apply Transitive’s QuickTransit binary translation technology to servers based on Intel’s Itanium 2 and Xeon processors. That would let Intel-powered servers run software written for older RISC machines. (Itanium 2 powers Intel’s most powerful servers, while Xeon powers more modest corporate servers.)

Apple users need little introduction to QuickTransit: It’s the translation technology behind Rosetta, which enables Apple’s new Intel-based machines to run applications written for the PowerPC platform. Translation software earns its keep during transitions from one processor architecture to another, albeit with a performance hit.

The announcement that Transitive will support Itanium 2 and Xeon has Apple watchers wondering: Can we expect Apple servers with either chip sometime in the near future?

“Apple has said nothing and is so secretive that we'll likely not know until the official announcement,” says Shane Rau, Program Manager for PC Semiconductors at market research firm IDC. “However, it would make sense that, as it transitions its client systems to Intel chips, Apple would also use the technology to transition its Xserve server systems over to Intel chips, like Xeon.”

Keep in mind that servers today represent a tiny percent of Apple’s business—about one percent, says Tim Deal, a senior analyst at Technology Business Research. Apple sells Xserves mostly to its core markets, including creative, design, and higher education. The PowerPC G5 chip currently fuels Apple’s highest-end servers; switching to an Intel processor would be primarily a marketing advantage, Deal says.

“It’s been important for Apple to overcome objections regarding sales of its servers into the large or mid-size enterprise,” Deal says. “Apple’s been challenged by a pervasive perception that its server offering is not compatible with existing technology.”

Itanium 2 and Xeon would speak for themselves: They are components IT customers already know well, Deal says. As for when those chips might make an appearance in the Xserve, that remains to be seen.

Dual-core details emerge

Lower-power, dual-core chips also got their moment in the Developer Forum spotlight, as Intel revealed more details regarding three long-awaited products: “Merom” for mobile computers, “Conroe” for desktop PCs, and “Woodcrest” for servers. All are based on Intel’s new Core micro-architecture, which is a descendant of the design for Pentium M (developed for mobile computing.) These new chips are designed to be extremely power efficient, whereas Intel’s first dual-core chips threw a ton of heat inside PC cases, hindering performance and limiting design options.

The new chips will be manufactured using 65-nanometer technology, a process improvement that lets Intel make smaller chips that draw less power—perhaps 30 percent less than today’s comparable chips, Intel says. Intel plans to roll out even more efficient 45-nanometer technology in 2007, the company also revealed last week.

Power-efficient chips have two big implications for Apple. It gives the company room to make highly creative notebook designs in late 2006, while raising the possibility of making an “ultra-mobile” PC—a tiny machine that’s smaller than a notebook but bigger and more functional than a PDA

Ultra-mobile PCs have already been discussed among Wintel PC makers. Microsoft has recently let out a few hints regarding “Origami,” a prototype software environment for an ultra-mobile PC; Samsung showed a prototype device at the CeBIT tradeshow in Europe.

“Power’s a key issue,” Deal says. “From a design standpoint, Apple constantly surprises us.”

These new chips could let Apple widen its mobile product line, says IDC’s Rau. That would allow Apple and other PC makers to further segment their desktop PC offerings.

Quad-core coming?

In the other big news from IDF, Intel unveiled more details regarding its plans for quad-core chips. Intel said it plans to release its first quad-core chip for desktop PCs, codenamed “Kentsfield,” in the first quarter of 2007. But this chip won’t really meld four central processing units into one chip—as rival AMD plans to do with its quad-core chips coming in 2007.

Instead, Intel’s “Kentsfield” will combine two dual-core chips into one package. This isn’t the most efficient design strategy, but it will help Intel get quad-core chips to market at the same time as AMD. Of course, Intel will improve the quad-core design as quickly as possible. For Apple users, quad-core chips will mean a huge amount of horsepower compared to today’s highest-end Apple desktops.

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