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By Charles Haddad Is the day coming when Macs will come stamped with "Intel Inside"? Technically, it's certainly possible, since Apple's new OS X operating system is based on Unix, the software that runs half the Internet. Indeed, the last time Steve Jobs tried to introduce a new operating system, NextStep, at Next Computer, he ended up reconfiguring the software to run on the Intel processors that power 90% of the world's computers.
Some engineers believe that it wouldn't take too much work to enable OS X to do the same. And that could inevitably open the door to a version of OS X for non-Apple PCs -- and the selection of Pentium over the PowerPC chip for Macs.
It sounds like an irresistible idea, and a rising chorus of computer experts are calling on Apple to do so. No less an industry authority than Bear Stearns analyst Andrew Neff sees an 80% probability that Apple will switch to Intel chips within the next two to four years.
DISASTROUS IDEA. With all respect, Mr. Neff, I'd rather fight than switch, to paraphrase an old cigarette slogan. Abandoning the PowerPC chip is an idea that may look smart on paper -- but trust me, it would be a disaster if carried out. Macs would lose a big part of what makes them special and worth owning.
Let me explain. A big reason PCs are so persnickety is that Windows runs on scores of different hardware configurations, over which Microsoft exercises little control. It's a nearly impossible task, especially if you're changing Windows every two years or so, to ensure it will run identically -- and run well -- on every PC.
Not so with Macs. Apple controls both the hardware and the OS. That enables Apple to ensure the two fit hand-in-glove. And it's a big reason why Macs are not only much easier to use but more stable and consistent than Windows machines. Apple forces programmers and chip manufacturers alike to obey common standards so every Mac works the same. Microsoft can only dream of such iron control over PC manufacturers.
RELIABILITY ADVANTAGE. For Apple to surrender that control would be foolish. It couldn't ensure that OS X would work as well on all Intel processors as it does on Apple's PowerPC chip. And that would mean OS X would inevitably become persnickety, too, just like Windows. Apple's reputation for quality would be badly tarnished. Why buy a PC running OS X if it didn't work as reliably as on today's Macs? That's not what I'd call a winning strategy.
Worse, Apple would be losing its competitive advantage at the same time it was challenging Microsoft head-on. Right now, the two occupy parallel but largely uncompetitive tracks. Despite the endless sniping between them, Microsoft benevolently tolerates Apple -- and for good reason. The Redmond giant is the leading publisher of Mac software. Plus, Apple provides the pretense that the computer market is competitive. How can Microsoft be a true monopolist if a viable alternative exists?
If Microsoft suddenly felt threatened by Apple, its benevolence would vanish in a heartbeat. Bill Gates is nothing if not a ruthless competitor. He would train the full power of Microsoft's clout on Apple. Stripped of its competitive advantage, Macs would become roadkill in Microsoft's powerful headlights.
iPOD INVASION. What's driving the switching idea is an undying dream: the fantasy that Apple still has some shot at dethroning the Wintel duopoly. Folks, the war is over. Wintel controls PC computing and always will. But the good news is that, while not going away, PCs are becoming just one cog in an ever-growing digital network of electronic devices.
New battles are raging. As yet, no one -- certainly not Microsoft -- has won control over TVs, PDAs, MP3 players, and the like. In these struggles, Apple has a good chance to become the standard-bearer. Its iPod MP3 player has become such a hit that Apple has developed a Windows version, which Best Buy will sell (see BW Online, 7/3/02, "iPod, You Pod, Will We All Pod?").
Apple will never be more than a niche player in the PC market, the Porsche of home computing. But it could someday rule one or more of the new generation of electronic devices, if it doesn't get fooled into adopting a paper strategy that looks too good to be true -- and is. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online