Apple in talks with AMD? Set relationship status to "it's complicated"

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AMD reps have been seen zooming around the Apple campus, taking meetings and presumably hawking their wares. With the recent MacBook Pro update proudly proclaiming the power of the Core i5 and i7 processors inside, and the work with Intel and NVIDIA to produce seamless hybrid graphics acceleration, it seems a rather odd time to be window-shopping with other vendors. But Apple has always been coy about its hardware choices, since whatever is in Apple’s products shares Apple’s cachet to an extent, and they are well aware of the value that represents.

So what’s going on here? Is Apple jumping ship, or just teasing in order to get a rise out of Intel and NVIDIA? Maybe a little of both.

If you’ve followed computer hardware over the last 10 years, you probably remember a period of AMD ascendancy five or six years ago, just before Intel’s Core series came out. It was also a period of great strife in the video card wars, with ATI flagging and NVIDIA thriving. Apple switched horses to X86 and Intel at a good time, and although the vast majority of the credit goes to Intel for creating an excellent product, the alliance with Apple surely helped popularize both platforms. AMD swallowed ATI some time after and has been experiencing mixed success against its rivals.

Apple’s decision at the time was prescient; they liked what they saw on Intel’s roadmap, not what was available at that moment. It’s just possible that AMD is pitching Apple in a similar way, although sneak peeks of their 2010 technologies aren’t really that impressive. Their major innovations are being pushed back to 2011, it seems, and they’re relying on graphics integration and “total package” strategies to sell their way through 2010. But for a good friend like Apple, maybe they have something special. It’s not out of the question. Bobcat-based iPad? I’m thinking no, but it’s fun to play pretend.

Furthermore, while Intel clearly has the lead in performance, the latest update by Apple suggests that raw power really isn’t the focus for its notebook line. After all, what use is a high-end processor if you don’t have graphics and RAM to match? Instead, they’ve opted for a full-system solution, something they laid the groundwork for in Snow Leopard. OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch are in prime position to be deployed as serious OS tools, but we don’t see that happening with the latest MBPs. Could they be a smokescreen? To be honest, I doubt it: that’s far too conspiracy-theory to really put any thought into, but there is a grain of truth to it. If Apple doesn’t have at least a little secret plan, why aren’t they leveraging the OS tech they’ve worked so hard to create?

Some are floating the idea of actually splitting the lineup: having AMD on the low end notebooks to save cost, and putting Intel in the high end, to capitalize on performance claims and big budgets. That’s a good strategy… for someone like Dell or HP. They’re all about choice, personalization, and budget. Like Lancelot (Percival?), Apple’s strength is in its purity, and although that’s been under attack recently with the fragmentation of the iPhone platform, I feel sure that Apple wants to keep its lineup as limited as possible. Claims of merit ring hollow when you extol both sides at once. Apple wants its judgment to be categorical: we use these processors, this screen, this material, and here is why.

What’s left? Well, I think everyone’s first impression was right: Apple is flirting with AMD to make Intel and NVIDIA jealous. And when it meets with them next time, Apple will cite all the sweet nothings and sexy promises AMD made. After all, AMD does have a compelling platform and it suits Apple’s apparent new strategy quite well; even if AMD knows Apple is using them as a tool to inflame someone across the room, it’s a good chance to get a word in.

And why, exactly, have I written 700 words about mere rumored meetings between a supplier and a buyer? Well, I think we all know that Apple is the Brangelina of the tech world (the Edward? I don’t know), but more importantly Apple is such a huge mover in the notebook sector that intrigues like this really do matter. It’s not just a question of gigahertz. This is the kind of industry gossip that can alter (however invisibly to the end user) the landscape of personal computing hardware.

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