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The Road Not Taken (Yet)

So, Apple, that company we usually dare not name, has crossed over into the world of Intel processors with its speedy introduction at Macworld Tuesday of an iMac and a new laptop bearing Intel inside.
That's even faster to market than most people had figured when Jobs dropped his Intel bombshell last year, and it makes sense -- laptops were a big reason for the switch (IBM could never get a PowerPC G5 chip that brought down the heat enough to meet Apple's needs, leaving its laptop line stuck at the slower G4), and waiting until after Macworld would have robbed Apple of its best forum to roll out Intel machines. No wonder Apple engineers jammed hard and overtime to get these ready.

Missing, though, was any mention of other lines, and specifically of when Apple's server line will make the switch. If I had to guess, I'd say that any move on servers will come toward the end of the changeover cycle. That's because what Apple does next with servers is not just an engineering issue to solve, but a strategic one. Those who use Apple servers know that they're underrated as a server platform, particularly in clustered environments; you've probably all read by now about Virginia Tech's clustered supercomputing installation running on Apple Xserve G5s (if not, the basics are here), and Apple has written its server software with clustering very much in mind. Singly, they're a relative snap to set up and use in office environments. In general, Apple servers may be a tad expensive -- although the price gap is lower than on desktops -- but you definitely get what you pay for in ease of installation and use.

So, does Apple look to compete with the established platforms of Windows Server running on Intel PC servers and Linux? Or does it continue to focus on its cash cow iPod business and relegate servers to a continued sideline status? That's the $64,000 question. The company could look to pick up a lot of new business with Intel-based servers; the SMB market remains the sweet spot for server market growth, and a lot of businesses moving into a serious server presence for the first time might opt for the relative ease of using Apple machines. But to really become a server market player, Apple would have to do a ton of marketing aimed at attracting crossover business -- OR play its ace in the hole, the fact that Mac OS X is a stable Unix platform already. If Apple wants to say "We already are a Unix server company, and the best one out there," that'd be a pretty interesting pitch. Until the next Macworld, though, we may have to continue waiting for answers.