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Apple Plots Move to Intel: Now What?

At an annual developer conference this week, Apple CEO Steve Jobs dropped the personal computing bombshell of the year: His company will be transitioning the Macintosh from Power PC microprocessors to industry standard Intel processors over the next two years. The first Intel-based Macs will appear in mid-2006, and Apple expects to completely transition its Mac hardware line to Intel processors by the end of 2007.

What does this all mean to you?

Well, that depends. Short term, it's OK to purchase existing (and upcoming) Apple hardware that's based on the Power PC. These systems will be supported for years to come and, most important, will be able to run all of the Mac software that Apple and third party developers release over the next several years. That's because Apple is letting developers create "fat binaries" that run on both Power PC and Intel.

Moving into 2006, however, the situation becomes less clear. Do you buy a new PowerBook in, say, January 2006, knowing that an Intel-based PowerBook--with better performance, power management, and battery life--will be shipping six months later? That's a tough call, and hopefully Apple will clearly spell out which machines will be upgraded to Intel when, so that users can plan purchases accordingly. However the transition progresses, however, Apple's hardware sales will falter, no doubt about it. When that happens is debatable.

What about the viability of the Mac platform? Despite a stellar quarter that ended March 31, 2005 (thanks to the white-hot Mac mini), Apple's Macintosh still represents a tiny portion of the PC market, and the company accounted for just 1.9 percent of all PCs sold in 2004. Even to Apple's current chipmaker partners--IBM and Freescale, which make the Power PC G5 and G4 chips Apple uses--Apple is an almost inconsequential market. Freescale representatives said this week that Apple accounts for less than 3 percent of its sales. And Freescale just makes previous generation G4 chips. Yikes.

The truth is that the Mac market will remain small when compared to the massive PC market. But don't let that put you off. Though many believe that the iPod and other consumer electronics devices are Apple's future, the Mac market is still healthy and profitable for the company. Its user base, though stagnant, is rabidly loyal, and for good reason. Apple's products are of exceedingly high quality. The Mac is secure, easy to use, and in many ways superior to Windows.

My advice, then, is simple. Don't worry about the Mac: The Mac has weathered similar transitions in the past and will weather this one just fine. And don't ignore the Mac: Apple has consistently innovated with the Mac platform, supplying Mac users with technologies that PC users only find out about years later.

Do consider a Mac. Though a bit pricey compared to PCs, today's Mac computers--especially the stunning iMac and utilitarian Mac mini--offer unparalleled design and functionality, with an OS that is never hacked. If you care about security, safety, and design aesthetics, there's never been a better time to get a Mac.

And the future looks even brighter. Coupled with Intel's amazing Centrino technologies, tomorrow's PowerBooks will be smaller and lighter than today's devices, and offer better performance and battery life. And thanks to the quad-core Pentium D chips that Apple will likely use in its next-generation PowerMac desktop computers, the future looks similarly bright there.

However you slice it, this week's news is positive, not negative. There are questions, yes. But these questions will be answered, over time.

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