05 September 2005

7 reasons why it's Apple-Intel not Apple-AMD.

I have seen many comments from people querying why Apple didn't choose AMD instead of Intel. So, here are my reasons why they did what they did.

I believe most of the people proposing AMD are guilty of looking at today and also of choosing just one metric. There is little doubt (from what I can research) that today's AMD chips have the better of Intel in many regards. This has been especially true in the desktop arena. It wasn't true until very recently in the laptop area (AMD's Turion I think finally got them there), where I have just seen a review that compares it well to current Pentium M laptops. However, here are several reasons why Apple didn't go with AMD. Some have been presented, some are implied, and some are my guesswork:

1. Apple went with Intel not because of what they have today, but with a high degree of confidence in what they promise tomorrow in terms of performance per watt. As far as I can see, if they deliver on these promises, they will once again have a very competitive offering. No doubt AMD can beat them in a few areas or maybe by a small percentange in most areas, but then see the next points.
2. AMD has about 10% of the market, Intel has most of the rest. In terms of production capacity, Intel can churn out chips for Apple with far less capacity strain than AMD. The AMD route would more likely (though not necessarily) give Apple the same problems suffered with Motorola and IBM in terms of supply. Great embarrassment for Apple would ensue.
3. Intel's range (going forward) is more complete than AMD's. Ranging from X-Scale through to high end multicore chips. I doubt AMD could have been the sole supplier for Apple of everything they needed. I think as convergence between PC and consumer electronics device blurs, the range of chips will become important.
4. Intel's future offerings in terms of packages are possibly more attractive than what AMD could offer. This includes things such as WiMax, 802.11n, TPM etc. SJ made mention of Intel's vision as matching apple's. Intel is talking about 6W devices and I haven't heard AMD talking about that. I think Apple could see that Intel were trying to enable the sorts of devices Apple want to make. No other chipmaker has quite that all-round vision.
5. Let's assume that Intel has some problems in the future. What's to stop Apple using AMD chips then? As far as I can see, nothing. Any restrictive clauses in an Intel contract would be invalid given current Intel near-monopoly and current spat between the two. Let's assume Apple went with AMD, and AMD couldn't quite deliver. What then? Apple having REALLY spurned Intel would have a very hard time of negotiating a favourable deal. It makes a lot of sense to start with the market leader, and see how things go. And I'm sure AMD will be very keen to attract Apple's business in the future.
6. Let's not assume that Apple just chose Intel. Perhaps it was a two-way thing. Intel has been under some pressure lately. It has been beaten at what it does in some areas by AMD, and it has played second fiddle to Microsoft, even though it was fundamental to the Wintel monopoly for many years. It's also lost out to things like Cell or PowerPC for games consoles. It hasn't got a name for building hardware and doing innovative things, and is frustrated with that position - it thinks it should have more respect. So, it teams up with a company that is great at delivering on that vision - a company that can really make the most of high performance/watt chips, and the packages of tomorrow. I honestly think that Intel was very aggressive in getting Apple's business and will have made it some very sweet deal (hopefully including low prices and waiving the requirement to put Intel inside stickers on our boxes!). It wasn't just a case of Apple going to Intel and asking what could they do.
7. Remember that Dell is 100% Intel. There is not a single Dell computer shipped with AMD chips today, and as far as I know, none are planned. Dell has perhaps missed opportunities because of this, but they're not stupid - they will have their reasons.

Finally, some have questioned whether Apple will use Intel's bog-standard chips or have something custom-made. It's pretty obvious when you look at the economics. To build a semi-conductor fabrication plant these days costs several BILLION dollars. So, when you move from 90 to 65nM for instance, you start again. Apple will be a small but influential customer, but the economics are not there for Intel to build a complete range of chips just for Apple. Instead, Apple will (hopefully) have secured early access to the best chips at a good price. But I also think it's not out of the question that some of the packages that Intel will build for Apple could be unique. If you search through the archives at ars technica and a few other highly technical sites, you'll probably find out which chips apple will likely use when.

So, that's why - IMHO - no AMD today, but who knows in the future?

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