Apple: Best and Worst of Times
Alien chips inside Macs?

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"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." That's the way Charles Dickens described the situation in his classic epic, A Tale of Two Cities. It's fitting to say the same for Apple, where the Cupertino company has fielded what many think is the finest operating system in the world, OS X, running on Motorola processors that simply can't keep up with the white-hot competition in the Intel and AMD derby. Best OS, worst chips. It looks to me like, if Apple doesn't make a few changes soon, it's headed for the technological guillotine. But now there's new hope for a white knight to come riding up to save Apple from the scaffold, and his horse is named IBM.

Apple had a pretty good point when it coined the phrase "megahertz myth" a few years ago. At one time in 1999, Intel's fastest Pentium III chips were running at 600 MHz while Apple's PowerPC G4 processors hit top speeds of 500MHz. Steve Jobs, with his P.T. Barnum-like showmanship, demonstrated that his Macs were twice as fast as an Intel-equipped machine running certain Photoshop filters. Here's where the phrase "megahertz myth" was born. And the demonstration convinced most people. It was plausible that a chip that was a hundred megahertz slower could process information faster because of its technical superiority.

Fast-forward to the present. I say, maybe megahertz don't matter, but gigahertz sure do. Intel will release a P4 chip that tops 3GHz in the coming weeks, while the best Apple can do with Motorola chips is squeeze a few more cycles out of them by seemingly overclocking them to 1.25 GHz. I can't confirm this, but all signs point to desperation on the part of Apple, using engineering tricks to squeeze every last drop of clock cycles out of these tired old horses (read my review of the dual 1.25GHz Mac by clicking here). In the newest Power Mac, there are more fans than I've ever seen in an Apple box, with numerous holes drilled in the front and the back, all in the name of cooling. These 1.25GHz Motorola G4s run hotter than a two-dollar pistol. It looks to me like Motorola, in dire straits company-wide, answered Apple's pleading for faster chips with an offhand dismissal along the lines of, "If you want faster chips, just overclock the ones we give you. Like it or lump it." To say the least, Motorola, obviously more concerned with selling cell phones than Macs, doesn't seem to be responding to Apple's desperate plight.

So Apple has to do something. Last week, all the talk was about how Apple had already been toying with a Pentium chip that could power OS X, and had it running deep within its secretive Cupertino enclave. There was some hope in this scenario. If Apple could use off-the-shelf Intel processors, and modify the surrounding motherboard technology to an extent that they would still have total control over how the software deals with the hardware, the company could come away from such an arrangement with the Apple mystique still intact. One of the principal strengths of the Mac is that its hardware and software are controlled by one company, so everything works well together. Suddenly, Macs would be hitching a ride on what is arguably the fastest-moving techno-train in history, where newer and faster chips are introduced about as often as Steve Jobs gets his hair cut (okay, hair envy here -- please, no bald jokes). In such a scenario, Apple could still have its proprietary cake, while using skyrocketing Intel chips instead of washed-up backwater-logged Motorola chips that were hot stuff five years ago, which is 50 years in computer time. The trump card is that OS X is UNIX-based, a portable operating system that engineers say would be a cinch to port to Intel chips.
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There's a stumbling block to all this, though. What about the developers of Mac software, many of whom have smaller shops? Now, for the second time in as many years, these developers would be asked to rewrite their applications yet again. From what I've heard from developers, particularly those who write digital video editing drivers, the switch to OS X was no picnic, and some are still struggling with that transition. Now, Apple would ask them to go through this again? Some will toe the line, others might just drop out. But the hardest work has already been done, bringing ancient Mac code into the UNIX realm. The rest would be easier, according to software coders, but still not simple. Even though it wouldn't be effortless, it beats the alternative of riding Motorola's nose-diving development cycle into the ground while the world slowly wakes up to the fact that Apple picked the wrong horse in this race, and that horse is coming up lame in almost every event it runs.

Then, as I was in the middle of writing this editorial, the sky opened up and the sun began to shine again. On Monday (October 14th, 2002), the wire services were abuzz with an announcement by IBM (Click on these words for IBM's press release) that it would be releasing a new version of its new 64-bit PowerPC 970 chip that sources say would include Apple as one of its customers. A week earlier, an astute and somewhat prescient reader suggested to me that perhaps IBM could modify its Power4 chip to make a new G5 for Apple, where IBM would license the Altivec instructions from Motorola. And that looks like what IBM has announced. But no word yet on those Altivec instructions, which power lots of nice features in OS X, among those being the easy-to-use iDVD application. The Wired and AP services are reporting that the new 1.8GHz chips might be available by the the end of 2003. Apple had no comment on any of this when I called them.

But even this scenario isn't perfect. Although this seems like a workable plan -- especially since the software code wouldn't require porting to another platform -- I think Apple will eventually have the same problem it has now. It will be stuck with a specialized processor that's wonderfully fast at the moment (the 970 chip reportedly can process 8 instructions per cycle rather than the three instructions per cycle of the G4) but doesn't have the powerful economies of scale possible with a mass-market, off-the shelf chip like an offering from Intel or AMD. How much will these new IBM chips cost? The fact that AMD and Intel chips are cranked out by the millions makes them cheaper, and also stimulates quicker development cycles.

Things aren't looking too good for Apple right now -- business is dismal for the Cupertino company in an already-slow techno-industry climate, with weak sales numbers to both graphics professionals and consumers. I think the company is at a crossroads, and needs to do something big, fast, or risk irrelevance down the road. And I'm not talking about designing some pretty new computer cases, either. I'm talking fast, new, genuinely superior processor power that won't need tricked-up demos, breathless cult-like evangelism and a blizzard of hyped-up press releases to show everyone who's boss. Maybe, just maybe, that's what these new IBM chips can do for the Cupertino fruit company.

So now, it looks like Apple will switch processors rather than stay with brain-dead Motorola. But judging from the late-2003 arrival date of these new chips, it might be too little, too late. Where will the Intel and AMD chips be by then? 5GHz? But any action is better than none -- I think the worst thing Apple could do right now is do nothing, and continue to expect people to believe G4 processors are as quick as the fastest from Intel or AMD, just because Apple says so. It's just not true. Kudos to Apple for at least starting the wheels turning for a switch to faster processors.To paraphrase Dickens, I say this to Apple: It is a far, far, better thing that you do than you have ever done.

Charlie White, your humble storytellerCharlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past eight years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling PBS TV director with 28 years broadcast experience. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at [email protected].

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