Apple Everywhere

Apple, AMD, and the Potential for New Mac Clones

- 2010.06.04 - Tip Jar

With Apple rumored to be in the midst of talks with AMD, the possibility of AMD-powered Macs is very real, if far off. Let's face it - Intel's chips are becoming more the staple of cheap, hot PCs than AMD's pricier and cooler offerings.

I'm all for it. Among the PCs in our house (we have three), only one has been almost trouble-free throughout its entire existence - a Compaq Presario 5340 that we bought back in July 1999. Up until this summer, our old battle-axe ran almost perfectly with its old 400 MHz AMD K6-2.

Compared to our other two (a white box with a Pentium III and the dreaded 2.2 GHz Intel Core Duo-based HP Pavilion a6400f with it's integrated Intel GMA 3100 graphics - read the Amazon reviews), the Compaq was cool, quiet, and generally agreeable to work with. Right now, it's been gutted in preparation for a total overhaul - motherboard, power supply, and all - but once again it will be powered by an AMD processor, this time a 2.9 GHz quad-core Athlon II.

The possible switch to AMD could have more wide-reaching effects than a simple change of hardware configurations. While Apple's hardware (iDevices excluded) was once the thing that set Macs apart from PCs, with the OS playing a secondary role (remember the old DOS-compatibility cards?), the Mac OS has come to be a major selling point in its own right since Apple's 2006 move to Intel CPUs.

In other words, the computer hardware is no longer as important as the OS it runs.

The speculation slowing building around the Web is that an Apple-AMD partnership would revive the long-dead Mac clone market (see Apple Squeezes Mac Clones Out of the Market for an overview of Apple's attempt to grow the Mac OS market by licensing clones).

At first, I thought this was just stupid talk, but the idea started making sense to me very quickly.

AMD at the High End

AMD processors are featured in precious few PCs, but those precious few are a privileged few. AMD's 2009 market share was 2.3% compared to Intel's 14.1%, and many AMD CPUs end up in higher-end PCs (like our old Compaq - a multimedia PC in its day). AMD also has ATI under its belt, ensuring compatibility between their CPUs and GPUs.

So, the AMD market is small but impressive - similar to Apple's.

Bear with me here - this is merely speculation: By using AMD's small market to its advantage, Apple could license out Mac OS X for use on a select few AMD-based OEM desktops and laptops. AMD could then enforce this by providing those select desktops and laptops with special BIOSes or, more likely, a specialized EFI that would allow Mac OS X to run on them. I wouldn't put it past them to include the Mac startup chime somehow.

Since the big thing that everyone complains about - Mac hardware ("it's too expensive, it can only be serviced by Apple, it doesn't have [insert cutting-edge feature here]") - is out of the picture, what do you think will happen to Mac OS X sales?

If the price is low enough, these Mac clones could sell like hot cakes, increasing the number of Mac OS devices on the market. Developers would have more incentive to create Mac software, consumers would have fewer reasons not to buy Macs, and, in turn, Apple's mobile line would increasingly prosper (if it's possible to top the sales they're achieving already).

Do I think this will happen soon, if at all?

It depends.

If the iPad sells well (mission accomplished!), Apple has a device that it can depend on for revenue. Currently, iPads are outselling Macs almost 2:1. That's not counting iPods, iPhones, or Apple TVs (the latter two of which are due for an update soon). Apple has a huge mobile market that could potentially sustain the company without the Mac hardware line, at least for a while.

Apple's Big Opportunity

That means Apple is free to experiment.

Think about this for a moment. Neither the iMac or Power Mac/Mac Pro lines have had a major chassis change since 2004. Yes, the iMac went from plastic to aluminum and changed screen sizes, but there was nothing as revolutionary as the change from the iMac G3 to the iMac G4 to the iMac G5. The ball stopped at the G5, and Apple hasn't yet picked it up.

Apple's laptop offerings have been pretty constant since 2001: Low-end plastic (iBook, MacBook), high-end metal (PowerBook, MacBook Pro). The sizes haven't changed much either: 13.3", 15.4", and 17". The last 12- and 14-inchers were discontinued in 2006, and Apple's never looked back.

The only two completely new Mac designs since 2004 are the Mac mini and the MacBook Air, and the future of the Air is not looking too hot at this point.

You can wax eloquent about the Mac's superior engineering, aesthetics, or the environmentally friendly aluminum and glass design, but when it comes down to your average consumer, here's what catches them:

  • No viruses.
  • Can also run Windows.
  • Works with [insert glorified peripheral here].
  • Looks cool.
  • No viruses.
  • Good price per use.
  • Works perfect with iPod/iPhone/iPad.
  • Did I mention no viruses?

Most of those things apply to the OS, not the hardware. And yes, the no viruses thing really hits people. People (college students, college instructors, random people in my town, my extended family) have been astonished by my 10-year-old Pismo PowerBook for two reasons:

  1. It gets ten hours of battery life. ("That thing gets ten hours?! No way!")
  2. It can't catch viruses. ("Oh, that would be nice. We had to spend, like, $150 on antivirus stuff...")

Bring Back Mac Clones

I think Mac clones are a distinct possibility. Then again, Apple's a tough company to second-guess. After all, everybody thought the MacBook Air refresh was coming last month.

I think I'll just wait and see what happens - but I'll keep an eye out anyway. LEM

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Austin Leeds is a Mac and iPad user - and a college student in Iowa.

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