Intel-powered Mac mini may be close

A financial analyst has got tongues wagging by predicting that the first fruits of Apple's partnership with Intel could be just a few weeks away

Analyst Ben Reitzez of UBS Investment has triggered speculation about Apple's latest Intel-based development after he raised his Apple price target and earnings estimates and issued a buy rating on the company's stock.

Reitzez said Apple would introduce more video content and digital entertainment offerings at Macworld Expo next January, helping to drive shares higher. He also predicted that Apple may launch lower-end Intel-based Macs earlier than its original June 2006 target, with the possibility of an Intel-based Mac mini at Macworld.

Apple announced back in June 2005 that it would gradually shift its Mac line to Intel-based chips over a two year period. However, Reitzez believes this programme may have been accelerated.

The move to Intel marked a tectonic shift for Apple, which had previously used processors from IBM and Motorola — now Freescale Semiconductor. However, the company had changed architectures before, shifting in the 1990s from Motorola's 68000 family of chips to the PowerPC architecture jointly developed by IBM and Motorola.

The migration to Intel has big implications for the future of Apple's OS X, which at present only runs on Apple's own hardware.

Apple experts believe the vendor may use the Mac mini to spearhead its shift to Intel processors. Jon Collins, principal analyst at Quocirca, said developing OS X to run on Intel chips could open up a whole new market and prove a masterstroke for the Mac maker, if they choose to remove the strict hardware ties the operating system has.

"To produce an operating system that can run on any Intel platform would achieve a huge number of sales it didn't have before," Collins predicted.

Releasing its operating system from Apple Mac could be as good for the company as the iPod has been, he added.

"Where people don't want to buy an Apple computer they might well be interested in buying the operating system," he said.

The original Mac mini was launched in January 2005. At just over half the height of one of Apple's iPod Mini music players, it contains a slot-load Combo optical drive that burns CDs and play DVDs. It also has FireWire, Ethernet, USB2.0 and analogue and digital output.

Apple had not responded to requests for comment on Reitzez's report at the time of writing.