Apple WWDC: The 64-Bit Question

In the eye of a speculative storm, what's the likeliest scenario for Apple's biggest platform shift since the original Power Mac?

As we count down the days until the launch of Apple Computer Inc.s freshly refurbished Worldwide Developers Conference, the level of Mac intrigue seems to have reached yet another high-water mark across old and new media.

Thanks to the enthusiasm of the companys user base, the appeal of its product design, its underdog status in the platform wars—and its own penchant for secrecy—Apples next moves have long inspired a level of interest out of all proportion with its market share. And on the eve of a rumored harmonic convergence between Mac OS X and 64-bit computing, the Mac grapevine has twisted into even more complex shapes—fueled, ironically, by an anti-rumor campaign thats been draconian even by Apples high standards.

Back before the Internet boom, when my old alma mater MacWEEK cornered the market on unsanctioned Apple dish in the era of Sculley, Spindler and Amelio, the picture was clearer. We were the main U.S. outlet for advance info on the company and platform; hence, the provenance of most reporting was clear, and accountability was easy to assign. Apple might not have welcomed all of our reporting, but we were a known quantity and a discrete force to be reckoned with.

Even then, we had to be careful about an "echo effect" when our own stories-in-progress were repeated back to us as confirmation. I remember placing a call one evening to Japan about reports Id heard of a new Apple laser printer based on a Fuji-Xerox engine, then hearing the same details the next morning from a source on the East Coast. I was excited to have received confirmation of the facts (as well as some speculation Id ventured about the new printers positioning)—until I gleaned that my second source had received his information from the Japanese contact Id phoned 12 hours earlier.

Now, thanks to the decentralizing force of the Web and Apples ever-more-strenuous efforts to turn back the tide of platform prognostication, that echo effect is often cacophonous. In addition to Apple CEO Steve Jobs stated intention to show off the next rev of Mac OS X (a k a Panther) at next weeks WWDC in San Francisco, most Mac-watchers believe the company will make some moves to shift the platform to IBMs 64-bit PowerPC 970 processor and away from its dependence on the Motorola PowerPC G4, a chip thats been slow to gain velocity compared with the clock speeds posted by Intel and AMD.

IBM has been up front about the glories of the PowerPC 970 since last October, and such additional advantages as significantly higher clock speeds and a blazing front-side bus are common knowledge; based on the published specs for the chip, this represents a giant leap for the PowerPC architecture. In a Mac, the chip would go a long, long way toward slaking the pent-up demand for radically higher performance. Up to now, however, IBM and Apple have been coy and stonily silent, respectively, about the likely intersection between the processor and the platform.

Meanwhile, like sequel-starved "Harry Potter" fans, established pubs like BusinessWeek (and eWEEK) have joined Apple-focused Web sites great and small in forecasting the precise content and arrival date of the Macs next chapter. Sealed boxes containing 970 Power Macs have already reached some dealers; new Power Macs wont reach users until the fall; Apple will steal a march by unveiling 970-based laptops at WWDC. The accounts are accompanied by putative specs, sketches and benchmarks, many of them contradictory.