Is Apple Pulling Back from Intel?


Apple has some folks running around in circles this week evidently trying to catch their own tails. It got some folks excited during its last earnings call when it alluded to some major new products coming soon and folks focused on Macs. The reality is likely more that it wanted the financial analysts to get off the topic of Steve Jobs' health, which actually didn't work.


It is interesting to note, in passing, that Jobs himself apparently stepped in to deal with the health problem personally by using Joe Nocera at The New York Times to take this subject off the table. I could write an entire piece on how brilliantly this was done. But ask yourself, why would he share information that was very personal with a reporter he didn't like after calling the guy names? (Recall that the word secretive is an understatement when applied to Steve Jobs.) Unbelievable, right? Read between the lines. Hint: Who would believe he actually did this if he later said he didn't? Now Nocera is the source, without third-party confirmation, that Jobs is OK. It is like watching a master work.


But, regardless of the health issue, folks are now focused on the new Macs and the apparent leak out of Apple that it won't be using the new Centrino 2 chipset and will instead use chips from NVIDIA, ATI or VIA. Bad for Intel, good for the mystery guest. But is it really an Intel snub, as the Inquirer seems to think?


Montevina Problems, Apple Solutions


Montevina was late, and that has created a timing problem with the first wave of back-to-school laptops that are due to market shortly. Many that have been announced sport third-party graphics solutions as a result because the new Intel graphics solution wasn't ready.


Apple is in the same boat; it can't sell what doesn't exist, and like most of the other vendors probably wants a better hedge against any critical path vendor in the future. Intel is clearly a critical path vendor. (Critical path is the process or technology that defines how quickly you can build something.)


Apple, at one time, owned most of the critical components defining its PCs but, over time, shifted to using third parties, many of which (memory, storage and graphics) have redundant vendors that can be used to step in if the primary vendor runs into trouble.


Recently, it acquired PA Semi, which was likely to be able to better understand when the company was at risk and to design in some unique technology that could better differentiate Apple products from more generic WinTel counterparts. Toshiba is trying something similar using the Cell technology that it jointly developed with IBM and Sony.


So Apple, which is generally a very well-managed company, is likely getting its arms around the full set of choices that it has and using those choices to ensure it has product on the shelves when folks start ramping up to buy back-to-school PCs in the next few weeks. It isn't intended to be a slap to Intel any more than Intel's Montevina delay was intended to be a slap to any of the OEMs. Apple wants more flexibility. This is true of every OEM right now, and that is going to lead to some rather interesting new choices.


Note that Apple doesn't participate in Intel's sticker programs, so it doesn't have the same financial incentives to use technology bundles like Centrino that the other hardware OEMs live under, which also increases its flexibility.


So What Could Be Coming from Apple?


Apple refreshed the iPhone but not the iPod Touch, and the Shuffle hasn't been refreshed for awhile. Most folks are convinced Apple is going to move from plastics to brushed metals for the Macbook line, but this seems inconsistent with the new iPhone design language, which is polished metals and high-gloss plastics. High gloss and polished metals are prettier but tend to fingerprint and scratch. (The iPod Touch back seems to scratch if you just look at it funny. There is a fix, though.)


The 3G integration with Macs has always been a little ugly and you would expect Apple to address that possibly by either integrating it as the other vendors do, or more interestingly, doing a better job of pairing the iPhone with a Macbook so you'd only need one 3G service. That actually would make both the Macbooks and the iPhones more valuable to each other and increase the attach rate for both.


Another possible change, this time to the iPod Touch, is the addition of Bluetooth Data so you could use it as a powerful cell phone accessory (like the Celio Redfly) if you didn't want to switch cellular providers and wanted to keep your existing cell phone. For instance, it would make a nice addition to a BlackBerry or a Windows Mobile phone, both of which are better for text.


But, one thing to remember, with regard to Apple, is that it sends out a lot of false leaks during times like this to cover up what might actually leak out of the company. Take all of this with a grain of salt and realize you'll likely be a bit surprised whatever it does.


We should know in a few short weeks if Apple has more than arms up its collective sleeves.