Apples Great Leap Forward

Apple isn't ready to talk, but its top-secret efforts to push both its hardware and software agenda may revitalize the Mac vision of vertical integration.

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).