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Apple has used IBM's PowerPC processors since 1994, but will begin a phased transition to Intel's chips, sources familiar with the situation said. Apple plans to move lower-end computers such as the Mac Mini to Intel chips in mid-2006 and higher-end models such as the Power Mac in mid-2007, sources said.
The announcement is expected Monday at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, at which Chief Executive Steve Jobs is giving the keynote speech. The conference would be an appropriate venue: Changing the chips would require programmers to rewrite their software to take full advantage of the new processor.
IBM, Intel and Apple declined to comment for this story.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Apple was considering switching to Intel, but many analysts were skeptical citing the difficulty and risk to Apple.
That skepticism remains. "If they actually do that, I will be surprised, amazed and concerned," said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "I don't know that Apple's market share can survive another architecture shift. Every time they do this, they lose more customers" and more software partners, he said.
Apple successfully navigated a switch in the 1990s from Motorola's 680x0 line of processors to the Power line jointly made by Motorola and IBM. That switch also required software to be revamped to take advantage of the new processors' performance, but emulation software permitted older programs to run on the new machines. (Motorola spinoff Freescale currently makes PowerPC processors for Apple notebooks and the Mac Mini.)
The relationship between Apple and IBM has been rocky at times. Apple openly criticized IBM for chip delivery problems, though Big Blue said it fixed the issue. More recent concerns, which helped spur the Intel deal, included tension between Apple's desire for a wide variety of PowerPC processors and IBM's concerns about the profitability of a low-volume business, according to one source familiar with the partnership.
Over the years, Apple has discussed potential deals with Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, chipmaker representatives have said.
One advantage Apple has this time: The open-source FreeBSD operating system, of which Mac OS X is a variant, already runs on x86 chips such as Intel's Pentium. And Jobs has said Mac OS X could easily run on x86 chips.
The move also raises questions about Apple's future computer strategy. One basic choice it has in the Intel-based PC realm is whether to permit its Mac OS X operating system to run on any company's computer or only its own.