Apples Tower of Power

Apple's near-stealth rollout of its first gigahertz systems is probably appropriate to the real magnitude of the new release.

If Apple Computers Macworld Expo rollout of its next-generation iMac was the marketing equivalent of a 21-gun salute, this weeks introduction of the companys first gigahertz systems most closely approximates the bursting of a paper bag. A damp paper bag.

Sure, the company issued a press release announcing that its Power Mac G4 line now tops out with a dual-processor system featuring the new 1GHz flavor of Motorolas PowerPC G4.

And certainly the announcement has sparked a welter of discussion among those denizens of the Mac Web who didnt expect Apple to hit this mark quite so fast as well as those of us who prognosticated that--despite the hardwares Expo no-show--the Mac maker would finally cross this Rubicon before the end of January.

By the P.T. Barnum standards of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, however, the Power Mac debut was a non-starter.

Dont get me wrong: Apples near-stealth rollout is probably appropriate to the real magnitude of the new release. In terms of speeds and feeds, theres really not all that much new beneath the hood of these new machines. The cache architecture has been subtly enhanced and the new systems offer users a choice between Nvidias GeForce4 MX and ATIs Radeon 7500 graphics cards, but the basic motherboard design remains unaltered.

Moreover, the speed limits on the current round of SOI-based Motorola "Apollo" chips--up to 933MHz from 867MHz for a top-of-the-line single-processor tower and 1GHz from 800GHz for the two-chip model--are so discreet as to be virtually invisible.

These improvements seem particularly minor in comparison with the big things Mac insiders say Apple has in store for its professional systems. Multiple eyewitnesses insist that Apple is far along in the development of new towers that already offer clock speeds in the neighborhood of 1.6GHz and triple the performance of the current systems 133MHz system bus. My sources say the tangible boosts in graphics performance and Mac OS X speeds are immense.

The as-yet-unannounced Macs are also reported to include some significant improvements to I/O, possibly including new versions of FireWire and USB; DDR RAM in place of the current SDRAM; and a faster interface to hard drives. Now thats an upgrade!

But back in the here and now: Whats the thinking behind this latest Power Mac G4 release, and what does it portend for Apples future moves on the pro desktop?

Dammed if you do

First of all, Apple found itself between iMac and a hard place. Its decision to move the consumer desktop system from its traditional PowerPC G3 to the G4, a chip that Apple has hitherto reserved for its professional systems, blurred the line that separated the processing power of the iMac with that of the significantly pricier Power Mac G4 line.

Sure, the latter offers expansion options that are more appealing to its core of multimedia and publishing professionals, but the New Wave iMacs 800MHz G4 processor was a bit too close for comfort.

Jobs Apple obviously learned a few important lessons from the sales debacle of its last compact G4 system--the Power Mac G4 Cube--which earned high marks for innovative design but failed to distinguish itself from the high-end systems on the basis of price or target market.

Meanwhile, of course, Apple is hardly in a position to turn the gigahertz mark into a major marketing milestone. This, after all, is the company that has made a mantra of the "megahertz myth," arguing (with some justification, judging from most real-world performance tests) that the floating-point performance and other niceties of the PowerPC architecture overshadow raw clock speed when it comes to getting the job done.

For that same company to turn around and crow about clock speeds--especially clock speeds that are less than half that of top-of-the-line Intel and AMD systems--would be a disorienting reversal indeed.

So Apple was more or less compelled to make this stopgap release, and it was more or less constrained from making a big deal out of it. Where does that leave the major upgrade many of us were hoping for?

Some Mac wiseguys are arguing that Apple is now locked out of making its big desktop move until Julys Macworld Expo/New York or thereabouts, for fear of rendering the newly announced systems obsolete almost at birth. Some old-timers have gone so far as to liken the situation to that of the Mac IIvx in the early 90s.

The last of the Mac II line, the IIvx featured a zippy 32MHz Motorola 68030 processor but was limited by an old-school 16MHz bus. The system was nicely designed but was almost immediately superceded by Apples cheaper new wave of Centris systems, leaving many early adopters feeling like theyd invested serious money in a white elephant.

However, Im more inclined to concur with historically savvy observers whove compared the new Power Mac hardware with the Yikes! systems introduced when the Jobs administration switched the pro towers from G3 to G4 processors.

The Yikes! systems debuted as the low end of the Power Mac G4 line. The higher-end models, code-named Sawtooth, featured a comprehensive logic-board redesign; Yikes! boxes were essentially Power Mac G3s with G4 chips swapped in, a move that allowed Apple to make a wholesale switch to the G4 while keeping prices down at the entry level.

If the company is applying the same kind of logic this time around, it could conceivably add the new machines to the top of the line sooner than later--and presumably do it with the kind of flash to which those of us in the Mac seats have become accustomed.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is best practices editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline magazine.