Apple gets another secret Intel processor

Opinion – You have to admit that there is a pattern. For the third time in two years, Apple announces a new computer with a processor that officially does not yet exist. Today it is the upcoming Xeon X5580 CPU with Nehalem-EP core. Does Apple get preferential treatment from Intel? Or is Apple simply Apple and does not care about non-disclosure agreements and the rest of the industry?

As much as Apple enjoyed beating down Intel and its slowpoke Pentium and Xeon processors in the early 2000s, the company surely must enjoy its two-year young partnership with Intel now and I am sure the company must be laughing all the way back to the bank when it thinks about the fact that it can do things no other major Intel customer would do – and roll out new processors in its products weeks ahead of the competition.

So, what happened?

Apple’s new Mac Pro systems announced today can be ordered with Nehalem-EP processors, CPUs which aren’t scheduled to be announced by Intel for several weeks. And while most major PC, workstation and server vendors have already received plenty of these chips from Intel, none of them has announced a product with Nehalem Xeons. In fact, I cannot remember that any other major vendor such as Dell or HP ever intentionally pre-announced a new processor.

Apple has done that three times during its two-year relationship with Intel. First was a 3.0 GHz quad-core Xeon processor with Clovertown core back in April of 2007. Back then, we were told that this processor was in fact available in very limited numbers, but it was only Apple that was offering the chip in its products. In April of last year, Intel shipped a “special” SKU of its 45 nm Penryn processor with a clock speed of 3.06 GHz, which almost exactly matched the specifications of the then unannounced Core 2 Duo X9100 processor.

The obvious questions here are: Why can Apple do that? And why does Intel tolerate Apple’s behavior?

Well, there are different answers to that story. Simply put, Apple is playing a smart game on the one side and just does not care on the other – because it knows that it is an important customer Intel cannot drop, especially not in these times.

The “special SKU” Core 2 Duo processor was, to our knowledge, simply provided by Intel because Apple asked for it. And in this case, it was an incredibly smart move, because it suggested that Apple had a processor no one else had, which resulted in a potentially important competitive advantage. While we have no idea how much Apple had to pay for this special processor, I doubt that Dell or HP could not do the same. And I wonder whether it wouldn’t be a good idea if Dell and HP started adopting this strategy to differentiate their products – not just on the high-end with “factory-overclocked” chips, but with purpose-built mainstream CPUs that fit, for example, certain form factors of devices.

From what we can tell, Apple also got a hold of the 3.0 GHz quad-core Xeon first, simply because it asked for it. If our information is correct, then any other vendor could have done that as well.  
The Nehalem-EP in the latest Mac Pro is a different case, however. This chip is not yet announced and not yet available. The only conclusion possible is that Apple was simply done integrating the processor and had its own plans launching it, disregarding agreements with Intel – agreements other vendors honor.

As long as Apple isn’t exactly a direct competitor to them and the products affected (something that may happen sooner or later, though), the impact may be negligible. But I am sure there is a lot head-scratching going on in Dell’s and HP’s PR departments over Apple’s launch decision. My impression here is that Apple does not care about official launch dates and simply launches when it is ready. And the simple fact is that they can launch without having to be afraid that Intel is upset. They have grown into a way too important customer Intel is unlikely to challenge.

Which, of course, does not justify Apple’s ignorant behavior. Or smart behavior, depending on your view.

Wolfgang Gruener is the founder of TG Daily. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.