Apples Great Leap Forward

By Matthew Rothenberg  |  Posted 2002-10-01

Apples Great Leap Forward

In my lengthy experience tracking the moves of the tech market in general and Apple Computer in particular, scoop news—especially scoop news about a company as rumor-averse as Apple—tends to arrive in fits and starts.

Sometimes the Mac maker is playing its future moves so close to the drawing board, it seems like theres little of long-range import to be gleaned. But when Apple starts fitting those rough sketches together, Mac watchers may have a chance to glean an expansive (if slightly smudgy) blueprint for tomorrows Macs.

In that cycle of boom and bust, the past couple of months have been fertile ones for Mac coverage on eWEEK: Weve managed to deliver a range of forward-looking pieces on Apples overarching software and hardware moves as the company continues to shape a unified platform based on Mac OS X and driven by more-powerful CPUs.

A few (like the news that Januarys Macs will boot in Mac OS X only) have subsequently been confirmed by Apple. Others (such as our report that Apple is working closely with IBM to hone the latter companys 64-bit GPUL processor for future Mac desktops and servers) should rise closer to the surface in the coming months.

And unless Gehenna suddenly opens a skating rink, still others (such as Apples recent folding of the Mac OS 9 team into the Mac OS X group or Apples "Marklar" backup plan for running Mac OS X atop the x86 architecture) will probably never receive official acknowledgement from Apple.

Nevertheless, weve got enough dots to start connecting up some of the major routes in Apples Mac roadmap for the next year or so. And if some Texas-size gaps remain ... Well, thats what makes the journey exciting.

The main theme I see emerging from these various reports: Apple is methodically plotting its pressing need to migrate the installed user base to Mac OS X against its equally urgent need to speed the evolution of Mac performance, dragged down in recent years by the relatively sluggish ramp-up of the Motorola PowerPC G4 CPU at the core of most current Macs.

Like so much of Apples business, those software and hardware sides of the equation are inseparable: Even though the company has scored impressive performance gains with Mac OS X 10.1 and 10.2 compared with the original Mac OS X release, the OS candy-colored UI features demand far more processor performance than Mac OS 9 does. To get all the wood behind the Mac OS X arrowhead any time this decade, Apple must make some bold moves on the hardware front as well.

As I discussed in a recent column, Apple put Mac customers and developers alike on four-month notice that Mac OS 9s day was done when it announced that as of Macworld Expo/San Francisco, Mac OS X will be the only boot OS on new Mac models (although users will still be able to run old-school Mac applications within Mac OS Xs Classic environment).

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Some Mac handicappers have hypothesized that this break with the OS past might have been forced by a commensurate change to Mac hardware; specifically, theyve suggested that January 2003 might be the month when Apple makes its long-rumored switch to a 64-bit CPU architecture.

Our sources say no, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the final decision to draw the line in the sand over dual booting was apparently made by marketing, not engineering. Indeed, wed heard reports that Apple was weighing the move to Mac OS X-only booting before Julys Macworld Expo/New York; from what we can tell, the company only pushed it back to January to ease the shock to Mac buyers systems—architectural changes had nothing to do with it.

Second, the IBM timeline were tracking makes it clear that even if everything stays on track, GPUL wont reach Apple or other OEMs in quantity until late summer 2003. (And even if IBM should somehow deliver the chips freakishly early, they wont reach the mainstream of the desktop Mac line until autumn.)

Moreover, Mac watchers in the good seats stress that Apple is not about to drop Motorolas PowerPC flavors any time soon, at least when it comes to its laptop lines. Finally, the 64-bit architecture of GPUL should be able to run 32-bit software with only minor tweaks—presumably including the classic Mac Finder.

In short, a sea change in Apple hardware is fast approaching, but it wont be as early or as abrupt as some observers have suggested.

At the same time, I can easily see Apple using this hardware milestone as another opportunity to advance the Mac OS X cause. The switch to Mac OS X-only booting in early 2003 will leave the Classic environment intact; this is pure conjecture, but might the change to GPUL in late 2003 (and the probable launch date for Panther, the desinated successor to the current Jaguar version of Mac OS X) mark the end of the line for this final vestige of the historic Mac OS?

And speaking of history: Apple is the last major proponent of vertical integration. Upon his return to the helm of in 1997, Steve Jobs wasted no time pulling the plug on Apples nascent efforts to license Mac hardware designs to third-party vendors. Since then, hes minced no words that Apples future depends on maintaining tight control over Mac hardware and software—and wringing maximum performance from both.

Hurdles to advancing either agenda hobbles both; Apple must constantly fire on both engines to provide the hardware horsepower necessary to run the ever-growing demands of the OS.

I predict that these pieces will come together in the latter half of 2003, and I trust that the resulting picture will capture the imagination of Mac veterans—as well as other power users who need a few more reasons to make the platform switch.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is online editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline and CIO Insight magazines.

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