Apple's decision to abandon IBM PowerPC chips in favor of processors from Intel raises the possibility of new, affordable Apple computers that could boot both Mac OS X and Windows. Analysts predict that the first Intel-based Macs will be the iMac and Mac mini.

"Apple will not do anything to prevent it," says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director with Jupiter Research in New York. (Today, Macs can run Windows only on a sluggish x86 emulator called Virtual PC.)

At the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in June, CEO Steve Jobs said that the first Macs with Intel processors would appear next year, with the migration to Intel expected to be mostly complete by the end of 2007. Apple did not say which Intel CPUs it planned to use or where they would appear first. But given that Mac OS X is a 64-bit operating system and Intel hasn't yet announced a 64-bit mobile chip, Apple will probably make desktops such as the iMac and the Mac mini the first recipients of Intel architecture, says Shane Rau, PC chip analyst for the research firm IDC.

The iMac currently runs IBM's G5 processor, while the entry-level Mac mini uses the slower G4 chip. Apple also sells a G4-based eMac desktop computer.

Mac OS on Macs

If you're hoping to load Mac OS X on an existing Windows PC, though, you'll be disappointed. Apple has made it clear that the Mac OS will install only on Mac hardware. Likewise, if you've been hoping that the switch to common hardware will mean more software developed for both Windows and Mac computers, you are in for a letdown.

Developers say that they won't be able to develop Mac and PC applications simultaneously, because the coding languages are still vastly different. While Mac lovers who have to run the occasional Windows application may rejoice at being able to run native Windows, the migration to Intel may be rocky for developers and users of today's Mac apps.

Developers will have to recompile programs written for PowerPC Macs, and until the new versions appear, longtime Mac fans who buy a new Intel-based Mac will have to run their legacy apps with an emulation technology called Rosetta (named after the famous stone used to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs).

Rosetta will run code created for PowerPC on Intel's chips at a pace that Jobs described in a presentation slide as "fast (enough)". In a demo of the technology, however, Adobe Photoshop took a fair amount of time to launch on a prototype Intel-based Mac.

IBM failure

Why the switch? Rau says that Intel can assure Apple a steady supply of chips for all of its products – including desktops, servers, and a range of notebooks. "And not just CPUs, but chip sets, WiFi, and so on," Rau says. In contrast, IBM had been unable to meet Apple's demand for desktop chips, and neither IBM nor Freescale (another Apple chip supplier) had a comprehensive road map similar to Intel's. Further, IBM couldn't solve the PowerPC CPU's heat problems in order to create a PowerBook G5 notebook, and it couldn't help Jobs deliver a promised 3GHz Power Mac.

Rau says that the change to Intel should help to lower the prices for Macs. That, along with the prospect of a dual-boot Windows/Mac system, could help increase Apple's PC market share – which, according to IDC, currently hovers at about 3 per cent.

However, not all observers believe that abandoning IBM in favor of Intel is a smart decision for Apple. "Intel is not the 'de-facto leader in processor design' that it was a few years ago; in the recent past Intel has been out-innovated by both AMD (with a better approach to 64-bit computing) and IBM (with a better long-term strategy around multicore chips)," wrote Ovum Ltd. research director Gary Barnett in an email message.