Apple struggles with lame ducks

Mac OS X is a winner, but Apple is hamstrung by slow chips and a 1970s business model.

Mac OS X is a winner, but Apple is hamstrung by slow chips and a 1970s business model.

There is an 80% probability that Apple Computer will switch to using Intel chips within two to four years, according to Andrew Neff, an analyst at Bear Stearns. It sounds unlikely, but Neff predicted Hewlett-Packard buying Compaq, which is perhaps even more insane.

Apple's problem is that it is stuck with a lame-duck microprocessor supplied by Motorola - a troubled company that has shed about 50,000 staff in the past two years. Risc (reduced instruction set computer) chips were supposed to thrash boring antiques such as Intel's x86 range, but as the Pentium 4 races towards 4GHz, even the most fervent Macintosh supporters have noticed that the Power PC is falling further and further behind. The huge gulf in both clock speed and real world performance - according to independent tests - has reached the point where Apple has to ship dual-processor machines as standard just to stay in the race.

Switching is not impossible: Apple has done it before. Rather than stick to one boring instruction set, it has already tried Mostek 6502, Motorola 68000 and IBM Power PC processors, with a side order of ARM chips.

And when it finally kills off its lame-duck operating system, Mac OS, there will be even less reason to stick to its chips. Mac OS X, formerly known as Nextstep, with its BSD Unix core and Mach operating system, is inherently cross-platform, and Next did an Intel port before it (in effect) took over Apple Computer.

What stands in the way is Apple's 1970s-style minicomputer business model. It makes its margins by maximum lock-in, with the ideal customer buying a Mac with all-Apple software and Apple peripherals from an Apple-owned store. Giving its users a choice would lead to the rapid death of the proprietary hardware business on which its survival depends.

Of course, Apple could simply suppress the Intel code it must have in its labs the same way it suppressed its Star Trek x86 port of Mac OS. But there is another way. A large computer manufacturer could simply buy Apple and close it down.

Several companies, including IBM and Sun Microsystems, have already declined Apple's attempts to get itself taken over, but that was before Mac OS X, with its Unix capabilities, shipped. Now a buyer would no longer have to support an expensive hardware operation: it could just stick a proprietary Mac Rom in a cheap PC.

And if a big PC company owned Mac OS X it could do what Apple cannot: it could license it cheaply to all comers, and give Microsoft a real run for its money.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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