When Apple made its announcement about the Mac's steady march to Intel, I flashed on the Great Wall of Client Conformity at last year's Intel Developer Conference. Intel displayed its reference desktop motherboards ringed by third-party "alternatives" or knockoffs. The message I took from it was: An Intel PC is an Intel PC wherever you go.
Many find comfort in that predictability, but it has a downside. Commercial buyers don't drive innovation in client computers. In fact, they have an aversion to it. Every configuration that deviates from the corporate standard can create trouble for the help desk, for parts and peripherals, for device-driver and software validation, and for asset tracking. If you don't like surprises, stasis is a good thing.
However, one small, well-heeled segment of the market forces PC innovation: the power users. On the noncommercial side, these are serious gamers, developers, and the enthusiasts who obsess over keeping their systems state of the art -- and who compete with one another to stuff boxes with the most firepower money can buy.
In commercial systems, power users are working on critical software development, enterprise administration, or high-demand verticals such as science/technology and digital media. Power users have one thing in common: Whatever they've got, they need more.
It's not just about performance, though. Power users demand that their systems have a set of rare characteristics: the box never overheats, it never locks up or crashes, it's quiet, you never have to call tech support, the components are the ones you'd choose if you'd built the box yourself (possibly because you did), and if there's a defect, the bad part instead of the whole system gets swapped out. These requirements read like those you'd associate with a server -- which makes a poor client -- or a pricey workstation. Or a Mac.
Apple's move to Intel will get it the volume business that it wants and that its investors yearn for. But Apple's also got a nice, fat niche waiting for it: Users and buyers with ever-advancing expectations that common PCs, Windows, and Linux can't satisfy. That precisely describes Apple's current commercial installed base. When Apple starts pushing out Intel desktops and notebooks for commercial markets, it has to continue its tradition of designing for its insatiable power users, especially those who work in academia, science/technology, media, and other markets that have workstation needs and desktop budgets.
It's unlikely that you're among Apple's specialty customers, but Apple's imperative to satisfy its installed base, to deliver commercial clients that are obvious upgrades from iMac, PowerBook, and PowerMac, means that we'll all have access to x86 hardware that advances expectations instead of lagging behind them.
What makes me so hopeful that this is so? IBM and Freescale, Apple's previous CPU suppliers, both said the same thing about Apple's departure: Thank God, now we can get back to serving our other customers. Apple pushed IBM and Freescale to advance PowerPC technology further and faster than the majority of their customers expected or required. I hope Apple makes itself another pain in Intel's ass. Then all users of commercial client hardware can demand more than Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM can deliver. -- InfoWorld (US)
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