Macs with Intel inside? You bet!

David Coursey: As Apple and Microsoft drift apart, there is little to stop Steve Jobs creating an Intel-based Apple Mac

Here's a prediction: In less than 18 months, you'll be able to buy an Apple Macintosh computer with an Intel (or equivalent) processor inside. The machine will be able to boot either Mac OS or Windows, although it might not come with Windows preinstalled.

I've considered -- and rejected -- this idea in the past. My feeling has been that, unless Apple were ready to cut the cord with Microsoft, it wouldn't attempt this kind of head-to-head platform competition.

Well, guess what? With Apple ads encouraging Windows users to switch platforms, and Microsoft whining about supposedly slow sales of Office for OS X, it's clear that the relationship is in trouble. As the two drift apart, Apple has little reason not to make a processor change.

I'm not the only one thinking this could happen. Bear Stearns analyst Andrew Neff recently issued a report in which he enumerated the reasons Apple might want to adopt the Intel platform. Neff and I largely agree, though I'm pretty sure there won't be a direct Intel/Apple alliance.

Some of you may find this bewildering. How can Apple's OS run on an Intel processor? The non-bewildered should say, in unison, "Because it's a Unix!" Since Mac OS X is built atop a version of Unix, porting it over to Intel processors is fairly straightforward. This wasn't possible with previous Mac operating systems and is, perhaps, the biggest benefit of moving to an industry-standard platform for Mac OS.

With the move to an Intel-equivalent processor, Apple's hardware prices could come down slightly, and the real battle to get Windows users to switch to Mac OS would be on.

And if those converts find they don't like the Mac OS after all, they could always use their Intel-equipped Macs to run Windows XP. Maybe Apple will even offer to replace Mac OS with Windows as a satisfaction guarantee. I can already see the slogan: "Macintosh: Satisfaction guaranteed or double your Windows back!"

OK, maybe I can't. But anything Apple can do to make it easier for Windows users to buy a Mac is a good thing -- both for the company and for potential users.

Whether we'd see non-Apple hardware booting up Mac OS remains a question. My bet is that, even if Apple does make the switch to Intel, it will lock out other PC makers and continue to be the exclusive supplier of Mac hardware. That revenue is just too important to Apple's bottom line for Cupertino to allow just anyone to make Macs.

A good way to do this might be to hire AMD to be the exclusive supplier of "Intel" processors for Macintosh, perhaps configured in such a way that Mac OS would only run on them rather than on any Intel-based system.

I don't think Apple's switch to Intel would create a second source for Mac hardware, something Steve Jobs stopped almost as soon as he arrived back at Apple in 1997. (Remember Power Computing's Mac clones?) It's both a marketing opportunity to snag switchers and a chance to reduce Apple's dependence on Motorola's PowerPC chips.

Getting away from Motorola -- a company that seems to go through a major reorganisation every three to six months -- is probably a good thing. Can it really be counted on to develop PowerPC into the future? And even if it can, what's to stop Apple from using AMD's "Intel" chips in its low-end machines and PowerPC processors in high-end systems? That's precisely what I might do if I were Apple-Chief-for-Life Steve Jobs.

Keeping Apple the sole supplier of Mac hardware, regardless of processor, would not only protect Apple's revenues, but also assure that the tight link that exists between Apple's hardware and software continues. Such OS/hardware coupling is very much in the interest of Apple customers. (I occasionally wonder what would have happened if Microsoft were in the PC hardware business, too -- but that's another column.)

For Apple, going from PowerPC to Intel is a bigger leap conceptually than practically. Back at Next, Steve Jobs made the transition from Motorola to Intel. And, as I said before, Apple's OS X, based on Unix, would be a straightforward port from PowerPC to Intel.

So the hard part isn't the technology, it's Apple getting its head around the business issues involved and lining up the necessary support to make it a go. And a special relationship with a CPU maker, like AMD, is essential to make this fly.

How likely is this scenario to play out? I have no special insider knowledge of what, if any, plans Apple may have in this direction. But all the signs are that Apple and Microsoft are disengaging from one another, and that Apple is making the conversion of Windows users Job No. 1 for marketing and sales. And if that's really the case, then an Intel-based Mac can't be too far away.

What would that mean to you? Someday soon you may be able buy a machine that boots whichever OS you choose -- Windows or Mac.

May the best OS win.