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Sources: Intel developing next-generation Power Mac for Apple

In a move that may surprise some Apple watchers, reliable sources tell AppleInsider the Mac maker has contracted the design duties for its next-generation Power Mac motherboard over to industry heavyweight Intel Corp.

Specifically, sources said Intel\'s facilities in Oregon picked up the project in late-October after Apple sought the chip maker\'s help in meeting deadlines associated with its accelerated transition from PowerPC processors to Intel chips.

Around the same time, Intel quietly formed an \"Apple Group\" comprised of both engineers and sales staff, several of which are rumored to have been assigned to the Power Mac project.

With Apple moving aggressively to introduce four Intel-based Mac models in the first four months of 2006 — iMacs, 15-inch PowerBooks, 13-inch widescreen iBooks and Mac minis — resources at the company\'s Cupertino, Calif.- based engineering labs have worn thin, sources said.

By enlisting the help of Intel to design (and possibly manufacture) the Power Mac motherboard, Apple hopes to remain on track to begin shipping the first Intel Power Mac models during the third quarter of 2006, sources added.

It\'s likely, but not confirmed, that the new Power Macs will adopt Intel\'s next-generation desktop processor, code-named Conroe, also expected to ship around the same time. Unlike Intel\'s Pentium 4 processors and derivatives, Conroe will not use the company\'s NetBurst architecture and instead will be based on a completely new architecture, sources say.

Apple\'s decision to work with Intel Oregon on the Power Mac design may also have its costs benefits. Mark Margevicius, an analyst for Gartner Research, said any effort by Apple to pass-off its motherboard designs to Intel would help reduce the costs to manufacturer Macs and result in lower prices for the consumer.

\"Intel has done exactly this for the Wintel world several times over, and the benefits from a manufacturing cost have been huge,\" Margevicius told AppleInsider. The analyst believes Apple has had pressure exerted on its desktop systems from a manufacturing cost perspective, and has finally realized that the real differentiation is at the operating system and software levels. \"While cool white boxes are attractive and desirable, they are becoming more and more tough to justify compared to a plain-ol’ PC,\" he said.

\"While I have no insight how much this will save Apple, let’s not also forget that Intel also offers marketing dollars (several hundred million, if I’m not mistaken) to [computer manufacturers] who display the \'Intel Inside,\' \'Pentium,\' and \'Centrino\' logos on their hardware,\" Margevicius added. \"I would expect Apple to do the same.\"

However, other analysts wonder how the traditionally tight-lipped Apple will maintain control of its designs, plans and intellectual property once in the hands of Intel.

\"The risk with this strategy is that it could make the Power Mac more \'open\' than other systems as Intel\'s specs could be published for others to follow,\" said one Wall Street analyst who provides coverage on Apple, but asked not to be identified. \"It\'ll be interesting how Apple retains its proprietary architecture — which I assume will be more than software.\"

The analyst also fueled rumors of an even closer relationship forming between Apple and Intel, saying there are indications that the two companies may be working together on a custom microprocessor chip-set that would appear only in Apple systems.

As expected, sources say Apple will remain in control of the external industrial design for the new Power Mac models.