Apple's tough year buys a bright future

Apple's transition to Intel will be tougher than it's letting on, but the prize will be worth it

There are a lot of people feeling betrayed by Steve Jobs today. The Mac faithful bought into every facet of the machine's special nature, including its non-Intel soul. Now, that key differentiator between the magic Macintosh and the evil Wintel has been lost: how can they look OS X in the eye again?

They should chill. Nobody buying a computer does so for the processor. This is a source of much sadness to those who appreciate good design: over the years, the Intel architecture has seen off any number of technically superior competitors. Even at birth the 8086 chip was something of a kludge, designed to work efficiently with small amounts of memory at the expense of making the systems software harder to write. Deep within the latest Pentiums, some of that legacy remains: in terms of aesthetics, this is the ugliest heart to beat within the Macintosh.

That doesn't matter. What matters is that Macintosh will be cheaper and faster than otherwise, and Apple now has the option of changing processor manufacturers again without any fuss whatsoever.

The effects on software — the stuff that people do buy computers for — will be subtle. As with the transition from the 68000 architecture to Power PC, there'll be a range of effects. Some software won't work well with Rosetta, the PowerPC translation program that will run old software on the new platform. It won't be updated and it will die with the old hardware. Some will work well enough, although there will be a performance hit. Some will be released in Intel form. By and large, although not without pain, the Apple world will move across.

Expect a slew of numbers. If there's one thing the technical press and its readers like, it's benchmarks — and in this case, there's no faffling ambiguity over what the figures mean and whether they're relevant to real life. Power PC versions will be run alongside Intel versions and the results endlessly descried for significance. Not that it matters: there's no going back.

One big problem isn't technical but commercial. Before the announcement, people were happy to buy Power PC Macs. After the announcement, all being well, they'll be happy to buy Intel Macs — when there are some to buy. Until that point, though, Apple may face a rapid collapse in sales as people wisely wait for the first of the new generation to come on stream in preference to buying the last of the old.

Grizzled veterans may remember this as the Osborne Effect, where a successful computer, 1981's Osborne 1, had a stake driven through its heart by the announcement of the much better Vixen, long before the latter was ready. CEO Adam Osborne had hoped for a ringing commitment to the future, but it was a fatal mistake. Nobody bought the Osborne 1, the cash dried up and the company died. That shouldn't happen to Apple — Osborne had other problems and no iPod — but expect the next six to twelve months to be lean.

Let's imagine that the transition happens perfectly, and we're in 2007 with OS X Intel boxes everywhere. What happens next? Although it is correct to point out that Intel compatibility is by no means the same as PC compatibility, the economic advantages of going Pentium are only fully realised if you also buy into the support chips, memory systems and interfaces of the standard PC. The five years of OS X Intel's secret life within Apple will have been spent on normal, off-the-shelf PC hardware. Apple's Intel designs may have extra bits to make sure you don't go running OS X on any old box, but at heart they'll be the same as anyone else's — and OS X will indeed run on any old box, given the will.

If Apple decides it wants to be primarily a software company, it can easily make it so. It's unlikely to carry on making high-end PCs once that decision's been made — it's tried that before, and it hurt — and shrink-wrapped OS X may be a while in coming, but any number of interesting bundling deals with PC manufacturers suggest themselves. Making sure that new peripherals come with the right software to work with OS X is difficult, but then drivers are always a problem. The same issue confronts 64-bit Windows, Longhorn and Linux. It's not fatal. PC manufacturers, well versed in the enlivening effects of proper competition through their experiences of AMD versus Intel, will be more than keen to acquire a new stick with which to beat Microsoft. The carpet in front of Job's desk will be worn smooth over the next year by supplicant suits.

But Apple wants to be a hardware company: now, it has new ways to play. Imagine a media centre backed by a video version of iTunes and running OS X — it's an immediately more attractive proposition than Microsoft's Windows idea. Moreover, OS X looks lovely and it doesn't come with an entire forest of bloodsucking parasites that have to be constantly beaten off with sticks.

Apple has dispensed with its biggest disadvantage, that of low-volume pricing in a high-volume world, and that other domestic bugbear — Macintosh doesn't do games — has also vanished. Nobody bothered porting high performance PC videogames to the Mac; the market was too small and the expense damning. Assuming Apple don't mess up their video card strategy, moving games from Microsoft PCs to OS X in the future will be infinitely easier.

So here's what will happen. There'll be twelve months in the wilderness, with developers weeping and analysts predicting doom. Then the first domestic Intel Mac minis will arrive, combining competitive pricing and performance with a major update in online media services, together with Powerbooks bundled with lots of productivity software — after its fast, Apple will be hungry for market share. Then will come the workers Macs, then the first of the full-blown media centres — heavily integrated with online services, ultrawideband iPods and digital imaging.

Freed for the first time from the Apple hardware premium, all of the above will be properly competitive with the Microsoft alternatives and much more attractive. Yes, the transition hurts. But if Apple isn't killed by the process, it will emerge a whole lot stronger — and that's good news for everyone. Even the Mac faithful.