Apple Keeps x86 Torch Lit with Marklar

Apple's up-to-date PC version of Mac OS X is a handy secret weapon in negotiations with its PowerPC partners.

As Apple Computer Inc. draws up its game plan for the CPUs that will power its future generations of Mac hardware, the company is holding an ace in the hole: a feature-complete version of Mac OS X running atop the x86 architecture.

According to sources, the Cupertino, Calif., Mac maker has been working steadily on maintaining current, PC-compatible builds of its Unix-based OS. The project (code-named Marklar, a reference to the race of aliens on the "South Park" cartoons) has been ongoing inside Apple since the early days of its transition to the Unix-based Mac OS X in the late 90s.

Sources said more than a dozen software engineers are tasked to Marklar, and the companys mainstream Mac OS X team is regularly asked to modify code to address bugs that crop up when compiling the OS for x86. Build numbers keep pace with those of their pre-release PowerPC counterparts; for example, Apple is internally running a complete, x86-compatible version of Jaguar, a k a Mac OS X 10.2, which shipped last week.

Apple did not return calls requesting comment.

But a switch to Intel or Advanced Micro Devices Inc. processors is probably not in the cards for tomorrows Macs, sources said. Such a move would require a massive revision of Apples closed hardware architecture and a fundamental rethinking of its business model, which is founded on tight integration between its proprietary system software and hardware. Apple would have to also coax most of its third-party developers to rewrite their applications from the ground up in the companys Cocoa application environment. (Most major vendors have instead tuned their applications to Carbon, a set of Mac OS X-compatible APIs originally culled from the classic Mac OS and rooted in the PowerPC architecture.)

Nevertheless, Marklar has apparently gained strategic relevance in recent months, as Apples relationship with Motorola has grown strained and Apple looks to alternative chip makers.

Apple has reportedly been dissatisfied with the slow rate of Motorolas PowerPC development after committing to the PowerPC G4 as the centerpiece of its current desktops and professional laptop systems. The Power Mac G4 systems Apple unveiled in August topped off with a dual-1.25GHz system, a disappointing increase from the dual-GHz top model released in January. Meanwhile, users have debatedwhether the DDR support in the new systems is fully exploited by the G4 processors Motorola was able to provide.

The likeliest solution to the Motorola impasse, sources said: A desktop versionof the 64-bit Power4 server chip in the works from IBM, which co-developed the PowerPC platform alongside Motorola and Apple and has provided CPUs for a variety of Macs. Sources told eWEEK that Apple and IBM are collaborating closely to equip the Power4 with the Altivec vector-processing capabilities built into the PowerPC G4. IBM is expected to discuss its new CPU at Octobers Microprocessor Forum.

As it weighs the future of the Mac as a PowerPC platform, Marklar offers a relatively low-cost way of keeping the companys options open. "Its a hedge," one observer said. "Its a small price to pay to make sure Apple has a fallback plan."

"Steve [Jobs] has said Mac OS X is the OS for the next 15 years," another source said. "Marklar is a way of making sure thats true."

Jobs himself has hinted that Apple wont be constrained by the PowerPC alliance if better options present themselves. The Apple CEO renewed speculation about Apples hardware future with remarks he made at a July meeting with analysts. "Between Motorola and IBM, the roadmap looks pretty decent," Jobs said. However, he said that after early 2003 (when he forecast the transition to Mac OS X would be complete), the company will re-examine its processor partnerships. "Well have options, and we like to have options"

At the companys shareholder meeting in April, however, Jobs asserted that Apple has "no plans" for a switch to Intel. When a shareholder argued that a move could be beneficial to the company, Jobs replied, "That isan opinion."

Despite its current PowerPC pedigree, Mac OS Xs roots tap Intel hardware. In December 1996, Apple acquired NeXT Software Inc. and its Intel-compatible OpenStep operating system. Under the companys "Rhapsody" OS strategy, it planned to base the next-generation Mac OS on OpenStep, shipping an Intel version to provide a cross-platform development environment. While developer previews of Rhapsody for Intel were released, it was never shipped to customers and quietly left the limelight as Apples software strategy was refined into todays OS X.

Apples current efforts come nearly a decade after the company grounded its "Star Trek" program, a collaboration with Novell to develop the Macs System 7 on Intel microprocessors. While a working prototype was put together in just three months, interest from PC vendors never materialized. In 1993 the project was rolled into Apples Advanced Technology Group before it fell victim to budget cuts.

Nick dePlume is the editor in chief of Think Secret.