I For One Welcome Our New Intel Overlords

After several days of speculation and an unusual level of press leaks (none of which, I notice, have resulted in lawsuits), Steve Jobs announced today that Apple will be building future Macintoshes with Intel processors, moving away from the IBM/Motorola PowerPC chips that Apple has used for the last dozen years. According to Jobs, Apple has been building versions of OS X on Intel hardware for the last five years in preparation for just such a move. He demonstrated the current Mac OS running on a Pentium 4 today.

I’ll let others debate the technical aspects of the transition (Jobs, ever the marketer, assures Mac users it will be seamless–we’ll see). For the moment, I’m much more interested in this question: Can Apple survive as a software and iPod provider when it loses control of Macintosh hardware?

Yes, yes, Jobs and Apple VP Phil Schiller both say that Apple won’t let other companies build Mac clones (Schiller says today, “”We will not allow running Mac OS X on anything other than an Apple computer,”) but I doubt very much that they’ll have much of a choice.

Very shortly after an x86 (i.e. Intel processor) version of the Mac OS is released to developers–which will happen in a couple of weeks–it’s going to escape out into the wild. Sooner or later (I’m betting on sooner) some bright hacker or hackers are going to figure out how to get it running it on generic PC hardware, without the need for the proprietary Apple ROMs that will be included in “official” Macs.

And then it’s all over for Apple as a hardware vendor.

They can’t possibly compete with Dell and the “white box” PC manufacturers who buy commidity parts and operate on shoestring margins. Once that hack or set of hacks hits BitTorrent, that’ll be that. Anybody with a copy of them and a copy of an Intel-friendly version of OS X will be able to cobble together their own Mac clone. I won’t be at all surprised if Apple’s own first Intel boxes are priced out of the market months before they can even ship.

Apple’s profits and R&D structure are built around a business model of selling hardware at a considerable markup. What happens when those markups are completely unsustainable?

Jobs isn’t stupid. He has to know all of the above is going to happen. The question is, does he have a plan to transition Apple out of computer hardware, or is he counting on the fearsome reputation of Apple Legal to save him from the inevitable open-source cloners?

Speaking for everybody who prefers the Mac OS (and all of us who’d be just as happy running it on cheap hardware), I hope he hasn’t chosen the latter. That’d be about the quickest way to kill the Mac for good. Because like it or not and lawyers or not, it’s just a matter of time before that hack hits the web.

Full disclosure: I worked for Apple for a few months in 1993 (which was fun, and I left on good terms), and I shamelessly stole this post’s title from a comment on Slashdot.

UPDATE: Jeff Harrell, who actually knows what he’s talking about, thinks I’m all wet on this one. Check the comments for some good stuff from Jeff and others.