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Sunday, August 28, 2005
  big impact- Why Apple did it


Apple's extraordinary decision to swap its PowerPC underpinnings for Intel architecture has Mac fans gasping in disbelief while the rest of the world wonders what the fuss is about.

After years of sticking to the PowerPC architecture and proving the rumour-mongers wrong, Apple finally succumbed to industry and marketing pressure, abandoning the Apple-IBM-Motorola alliance (responsible for the PowerPC architecture) to elope with Intel and their gigahertz-spewing Pentiums.
Apparently, hell froze over and someone spotted the pig that flies.

While the PowerPC is widely-regarded by industry experts as a well-designed architecture, it suffered several setbacks throughout its life.

Most notably, production problems meant that the PowerPC G4 was stuck at 500MHz for over a year while Intel’s Pentium III surged past the 1GHz barrier. This was the beginning of Apple’s troubles.

Four years later, IBM came to the rescue with the 64-bit PowerPC 970, which is also known as the G5.

Although IBM missed the initial target of hitting 3GHz within a year of shipping (a target which it has yet to hit, actually), the G5 was still touted as a success, providing vastly improved performance over the G4, while giving the platform a fresh new roadmap for the future.

Suddenly, things were looking great for the PowerPC platform.

Moving away from personal computers, IBM also scored a hat trick in the videogames industry, supplying Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo with processors based on PowerPC technology for use in the upcoming Xbox 360, PlayStation3 and Revolution consoles respectively.

It seemed as if IBM could do no wrong.

And then, Apple announced the alliance with Intel. What happened?

At a glance, Apple’s switch to Intel processors seems rather baffling.

After all, the PowerPC roadmap shows lots of promise in terms of raw power, with faster clock speeds and multi-core designs in the pipeline.

The truth is that IBM has always been into server processors, while Motorola (now Freescale Semiconductor) was more interested in the embedded chip market.

In any case, neither party seemed interested or motivated to ramp up the performance of their processors the way Intel did.

With IBM’s inability to reliably produce faster G5 processors using the smaller 0.09-micron manufacturing process, Apple was probably reminded of the Great Wall of Motorola that prevented them from catching up with Intel.

So, in a way, it makes sense to go with the chip company that’s setting the benchmarks.

But more importantly, Intel offers a far more varied processor line-up, catering to all manner of portable and desktop solutions.

In any case, it’s probably better than scaling down IBM’s server processors for use in notebook computers.

Pentium don't suck, really

In an ironic twist of fate, Apple is now relying on the very Intel processors that it has spent the past decade labelling as “rubbish”. In fact, they haven’t stopped the propaganda yet.
At the time of writing, Apple’s website still has a section full of benchmark results that show you why you shouldn’t use Intel processors (look under the “Performance” tab of the Power Mac G5 page).

After being told for 10 whole years that PowerPCs are the superior choice, Apple is going to have a gala time convincing the Mac faithful otherwise.

On a more serious note, the big challenge for Apple is to ensure that the Mac OS X operating system is at least as good as (or better than) Microsoft Windows on the Intel platform in terms of performance.

This is because, for the first time in history, Macs and PCs will be using similar hardware and can be compared directly in benchmarks without the common excuse of “hardware differences.”

Apple’s extensive transition strategy may help alleviate fears among existing Mac owners about their computers going obsolete in a couple of years.

The Rosetta technology is a masterstroke – allowing Intel-powered Macs to run native PowerPC code at a slight performance penalty.

Now, we can only hope that it runs fast enough on lesser Pentium chips (a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 was used in the keynote demonstration).

Regardless of its performance, Rosetta is fated to be a short-term solution and will fade into insignificance once PowerPC Macs become a thing of the past.

The Universal Binaries are a great solution since they allow applications to be compiled for both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs – guaranteeing optimum performance regardless of the processor type.

But (and this is a big “but”), it will only work if the developers bother to compile for both platforms.

Most software companies will probably do this in the short term, maybe only for a couple of major releases. This is all they need to do, really, considering the two-year release cycle for most software suites and the typical four- to six-year upgrade cycle for Macs.

This is all good news.

Most of us – me included – doubted the switch would happen simply because we never thought that Apple would have technologies like Rosetta and Universal Binaries ready by now.

Kudos to Apple for doing their homework.

However, you’re probably out of luck if you hope to use your PowerMac G5 for another eight years or so.

Is the PowerPC really gone

Considering that Apple was able to maintain two Mac OS X code bases in concurrent development with minimal overhead, it’s not hard to imagine that they will continue the trend even if they don’t ship PowerPC versions in retail.

One area where the PowerPC architecture may remain is in the server market.

While a G5 may not be suitable for a notebook, it’s a great server processor: It has low power consumption, lower costs and high performance, as evident in Apple’s Xserve G5 1U rack-mount servers.

Multi-core versions of the PowerPC 970 will be even better.

Unlike the desktop Pentium processors, it’s also a 64-bit design, which will find buyers in highly specialised fields of engineering, science and medicine.

You can watch the webcast of Apple CEO Steve Jobs pleading the case of the company's move to the Intel architecture at developer.apple.com. -BY H. AMIR KHALID-

-Apple did it-
 


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