One of the things that differentiated an Apple computer system from a PC compatible computer was the hardware. There was no real way to run the Windows operating system natively on Apple hardware or conversely run OS X on PC hardware. With the announcement from Steve Jobs that Apple intends to start using Intel hardware for its computers, this difference may soon be a thing of a past but we have to wait till 2006 to find out what the details will be.
This announcement has both good and bad possibilities for both the PC and the Apple markets. Until we have more details from Apple about their intentions and implementations of this plan, we can only speculate as to what may happen to the markets. So let's take a look at some of these.
Good for Apple Consumers
There are a number of things that can be beneficial for Apple consumers in this switch to the Intel hardware. The most clear of these should be a reduction in the cost for the components that make up the desktop and notebook computer systems. Intel produces a much larger volume than IBM and this volume should help reduce the costs of the systems. Of course, this is only speculation as it is determined by what parts Apple uses and what special tweaks they may use.
Another benefit should be the ability of peripherals being compatible with both PC and Apple computers. This is already the case for the majority of external USB and FireWire peripherals, but in this case we are looking at the internal components. Items such as video cards, storage cards and even audio cards can now be produced for a single cross compatible hardware. This should reduce the costs for such peripherals for the consumer, but the manufacturers still need to be willing to make drivers for both the Windows and Mac OS X platforms.
Bad for Apple Consumers
The biggest glaring problem with the plan was announced by Apple at the developers conference and has to do with backward compatibility with previous Mac software. Apple has always included some form or emulation to support previous applications written for the older Motorola processors and the older Mac 8 and Mac 9 operating systems. With the Intel switch, the next version of Mac OS X will not include this support. Thus people who have older software applications will not be able to run them on the new systems. This can be a huge hassle for consumers who will either need to update software or simply no longer be able to run an application anymore.
Another issue has to do with how Apple plans to implement the Intel hardware. It is possible that while they may use the same x86 architecture as the PC, there may be enough changes and tweaks to items such as BIOS and the OS that will make it so that PC compatible hardware will not be compatible with Apple's new hardware. I doubt they will do this, but Apple has never really liked to open up their hardware to other companies.
Good for PC Users
Sick and tired of all the viruses and security problems with Windows software? What if you could purchase a copy of the Mac OS X software for x86 and install that instead? This may very well be the case with Apple's new hardware. In order for the software to run on the new Intel hardware, it will need to also be written for the general x86 platform. Supposedly they have had a working internal version of OS X for the x86 for the past five years. If consumers have this choice it will finally open up true competition for the Windows operating system.
Bad for PC Users
Really there isn't much that can be bad for PC users with the announcement. After all, it doesn't really change the market for PC compatible computers systems. What could be bad has to do with the compatibility of the OS X for x86 software that will be released. Apple has never been very keen on allowing compatible hardware being sold to run their operating system. Because of this, they may make specific decisions about what hardware they implement and what is supported by the operating system.
Apple has specific requirements to make their systems easy to use, and part of that is very standardized hardware. By having a wide range of compatible components, there are a lot more drivers that need to be supported in order for them to work for the operating system. This could mean a lot more work for Apple in the OS development. It is likely that they will instead choose not to support non-standard hardware which would preclude the use of the OS X operating system on anything but their hardware.
It is still too early to tell what the actual effects of the announced switch for Apple will be. Of course, Intel will benefit heavily from the deal, boosting their percentage of the microprocessor market. I want to take the optimistic approach and hope that this will expand the choices that both Apple and PC users will have, but Apple's past and present with regards to a closed hardware environment may well win over and preclude that from happening.