Walt Mossberg

What the Apple Plan To Switch to Intel Chips Means for Consumers

The war in Iraq rages on, the European Union is fraying and North Korea may have nuclear weapons. But if you read the business and technology news this past week, all of that seemed to pale before an event variously described as seismic, epic and stunning: Apple Computer has decided to adopt processors made by Intel for its future Macintosh computers.

There’s a reason this was big news in the computer world. For decades, Intel’s chips have been tightly linked to the software of Apple’s archrival, Microsoft, and Apple has touted as superior the IBM PowerPC chips that powered the Mac. Plus, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, probably the most charismatic business leader in America, attracts attention for anything he does, even though his Macintosh has a tiny share of the PC market.

But what does Apple’s move mean for the average consumer, who just wants the best computer for the job?

In the long term, the change will strengthen Apple and the Mac, which is good news for anyone devoted to that platform or considering switching to it. That’s because Intel’s processors and other chips will give Apple more options than IBM’s products could for building Macs that run faster and cooler, and have longer battery life. The first Intel-based Mac is due in spring 2006.

Even consumers who use Microsoft Windows, which runs on the vast majority of computers, will benefit, because the Mac’s impact on the industry is vastly greater than its market share. Apple is the most innovative major computer maker, and the only one largely dedicated to serving consumers instead of large corporate customers. Almost everything it does is later copied by the Windows PC makers, so keeping Apple strong and innovating is good for Windows users, too.

In the short run, however, the chip changeover should make little difference to average consumers. For all but the techiest techies, changing the processor in these machines will be a nonevent, sort of like changing the engine in next year’s Lexus cars. As long as the new engine is at least as fast and smooth as its predecessor, few drivers would notice or care.

What makes a Mac a Mac isn’t the processor under the hood. It’s Apple’s elegant operating system, OS X, which won’t see major changes for 18 months, and the company’s stylish hardware designs, which it will continue to produce. When you peer at the screen of the first Intel-based Mac, it will look just like today’s PowerPC Macs, only it should run faster.

Of course, if Apple fails to execute the switch well or the Intel processors don’t meet expectations, the Mac could be in trouble. And users would lose if too many third-party software developers decline to spend the money and time to convert their products so they run on the Intel chips.

Here are answers to a few common questions I’ve received about the switch.

Should people hold off buying a Mac that uses the IBM PowerPC processor, which Apple will soon abandon, and wait for the new Intel Macs?

No. If you need a new computer and the Mac was the right choice for you last week, it’s still the right choice. Today’s PowerPC Macs are, in my view, the best consumer computers on the market, and Apple plans to roll out additional PowerPC models this year.

Plus, all new software for the Mac will continue to run on PowerPC models for at least a few more years, the likely life of any Mac you buy now. That’s because Apple has created a tool for software developers that easily creates “universal” programs capable of being run on either the PowerPC or Intel models.

Now that Apple will be using the same processor as Dell, H-P and other competitors, will people be able to run the Mac operating system on these non-Apple machines?

Unless some hacker does a masterful job, the answer is no. Apple intends to keep its operating system and hardware tied tightly together. The new Intel-based versions of the Mac’s OS X operating system will be designed so that they cannot run on non-Apple hardware, and Apple has no plans to license OS X to other PC makers.

Will users be able to install and run Microsoft Windows on the new Intel-based Macs?

Apple’s official position is that it won’t block the use of Windows on its new machines. Unofficially, however, the company says people won’t be able to just buy a copy of Windows XP and install it on an Intel-based Mac. That’s because Apple is unlikely to build in all the standard under-the-hood hardware pieces that Windows is designed to mate with. And it won’t supply any special software called “drivers” to help Windows use the unique under-the-hood hardware Apple will use.

However, I expect some third-party company to supply the missing drivers and otherwise make it possible to run Windows on an Intel-based Mac. Microsoft itself might even do this. That would allow Mac users to run Windows programs that lack Mac equivalents at speeds comparable to a Windows computer’s.

Will Mac prices fall due to the switch to Intel?

There’s no way to tell now, but I doubt it. Apple’s lower volumes, higher quality and unusual designs will likely keep it out of the very basement of the market.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at walt.mossberg@wsj.com

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