Thursday, August 10, 2006

Watch your step: the drop is a real killer.

The recent Apple WWDC brought with it the last major hardware milestone in the transition from PPC to Intel in a predictable follow-up to Intel’s June and July announcements of the release of different processors utilizing the Core 2 micro-architecture. Despite the proclamations of some it was widely-assumed that when Intel finally put the nails in the coffin of the Pentium 4 that Apple would meet the hardware end of its transition: the PPC front had been stagnating with little for Apple to offer outside of using the PPC 970MP in the Quad in 2005. It is the ISV side which still remains lagging that has been expected to take the most significant amount of time to move, though Apple has deftly mitigated this transition by licensing the technology behind Rosetta from Transitive, even if Rosetta has had warts of its own. An overly-delayed adoption of Intel’s new offerings even when considering the limited production runs until 2007 would merely serve to provide many belated “Me Too” moments for Apple should the original projections for the transition have been taken at face-value. “Now announcing the Mac Pro—with the same technology Dell has been using for nine months in its Precision line of workstations.” It merely would not have had the same punch as the timely adoption of Yonah and later Woodcrest.

Despite numerous errata with the Macbook and Macbook Pro Apple’s share of the laptop market is reported to have risen to 12% in June, resuscitating Apple’s successes in the portable market which began when AMD and Intel’s processor offerings still provided poor competition in performance-per-watt measurements with the G3 and G4 iBooks and PowerBooks. For many years the portable market has increased its share of the overall personal computer market as people have become more accustomed to associating the computing experience with the freedom of wireless networks instead of viewing the computer as a typewriter adjoined to a large suitcase that is attached by numerous tangled wires to a desk. Apple’s growth in this area signals at worst indifference to the transition and at best a welcome return to performance competitiveness with other portables while affording those with growing antipathy for the security troubles of Windows a way out at a decent value.

Even though there are numerous advantages for having a high-performance portable, there of course still exists a strong demand for increasingly-capable desktop computers for those that do not require the expense the portability of a notebook computer implies for equivalent functionality. Apple has already provided options for the SFF market with the Mini and the everybody’s-mom-should-own-one iMac, both of which utilize enough of the mobile hardware platform to provide for lower power-requirements while eschewing the complete mobile form-factor for offering lower-prices and larger displays. There are also the needs of those for whom the necessary storage, performance, and peripheral options are simply not tenable in a portable form factor. So finally there is also the Mac Pro, which squarely places itself in competition with Dell’s Precision line of workstations and Apple’s own G5 Quad for its current customers.

Utilizing Intel’s workstation and server platform permits Apple to more capably compete against its Quad by affording it 2x2 configurations that are not possible with the Conroe platform, and should Intel meet its projections for Clovertown 2x4 configurations in the near future. It also permits the utilization of the higher FSB frequencies and FB-DIMMs for potential gains in bandwidth. Having this as the only option however means that Apple is stuck with the price and power requirements of FB-DIMMs, Intel’s Xeon chipsets which do not support CrossFire and will never support SLI, and the future pricing of Intel’s Xeon processors as they begin to increase production of Merom and Conroe. It also places the base cost of a Mac Pro at over $2100 without a display. The decision to rely exclusively on the Woodcrest platform means that for those desktop applications where a 1x2 configuration would be adequate but there exists a need to have some manner of flexibility in storage, display, GPU configurations, and other internal peripheral options Apple is saying “pony up or live with the iMac.”

Even after Apple transitions the Yonah-based iMac to Merom there is still an enormous gap between the limited flexibility of the iMac platform and the expense and power requirements of the Woodcrest platform. This need will be further met by other PC workstation and desktop vendors shipping computers running Windows XP derivatives and later Windows Vista with the Conroe platform with chipsets from Intel and NVIDIA. The drop from the Mac Pro to the iMac is quite large and most will just grab on the branch extended by Dell on the way down, when Apple could really use a “Mac” to exploit professionals seeking to mitigate Windows to the land of Boot Camp or Parallels. It is likely that instead of investing in a parachute or some climbing gear, that they’ll just be getting a Dell, dude. That's like, a bummer.