It was simpler and smoother-running, and it had more potential for future development. On the downside, it ran hotter, it wasnt mass-produced, and it lacked ubiquitous support resources and maintenance skills. Downside concerns trumped upside potentials; the mainstream technology won.
That may sound like a narrative of Apples decision, announced this month, that it will transition by 2007 from PowerPC to x86 CPUs in Macintosh computers.
Im actually talking, though, about the Chrysler Turbine Car of 1963—but Ill admit that these two stories are full of eerie parallels.
Each began with an approach that any engineer would recognize as better; each showed that some differences dont make the right kind of difference and come at too high a price.
Those turbine cars were beautiful. They had hand-built Ghia bodies, with unified interior and exterior styling that carried a turbine-inspired visual theme through-
out. Apple has likewise made a point of elegant design, sometimes to a fault: The Apple III was attractively styled, but at the expense of cooling and mechanical reliability.
The turbine was a remarkably versatile engine: It could burn diesel, kerosene, gasoline, jet fuel, even mixtures of fuels. Thats not unlike the PowerPCs ability to multitask Classic Mac OS applications, OS X apps and Unix code (with command-line or X Window interface); it can even run Virtual PC to fool a USB device with Windows drivers into thinking that its plugged into a Wintel box.
Im not just reading Apples OS X spec sheet, either. Except for the cumbersome Classic mode, which I strenuously avoid, I do all these things on my PowerBook G4. Its a great machine, even if its palm rests do get too warm—another parallel with the turbine car, whose downfall was largely due to high fuel consumption when idling.
The end of the 1900s called for cars that could handle stop-and-go traffic without unacceptable energy demands; the next generation of Mac will spend most of its time waiting for the user to want something, and it mustnt need a backpack-size battery or a noisy cooling fan as the price of instant readiness.
Thats what Apple didnt seem confident of getting from continued reliance on the PowerPC architecture.
Make no mistake, the design strengths of IBMs Power Series processors make them the foundation of turbine-like performance in servers, handling DVD-size gulps of media content. Despite the potential, though, to evolve another branch of the family tree that could propel a notebook supercomputer, the Power line didnt seem to be getting the breeding required to give Apple what it wanted in a next-generation digital companion.
Talking of automobiles brings yet another parallel to mind: Remember “suicide doors”? Those rear-seat passenger doors that were hinged at the rear to offer more gracious entry and exit, especially for ladies in full skirts? They were the rage on high-end Cadillacs in the 50s but condemned as dangerous by competitors—until Lincoln rolled out suicide-door sedans in the 60s, at the same time that Cadillac phased out that “dangerous” design.
In much the same way, Apples announcement that its leaving the PowerPC comes hot on the heels of news that Microsoft will use a trio of PowerPC cores in its Xbox 360 game consoles. Microsoft, the “Win” in Wintel, adopts the Intel competitor at the same time that Apple dumps it. That seeming paradox makes sense, though, if you recall my previous comment about turbines in rush-hour traffic. Gaming machines are drag racers, not commuter cars—and commuter cars prize efficiency over simplicity, elegance or raw power.
As a deep-dyed machine-language bit-head, I want to be upset about Apples decision because I like to think of computers as their processors plus accessories. As Apple has told us for some time, the long-pipelined Pentium 4 is a mess. But most people, ahem, “think different[ly].” People just want digital appliances. Apple is doing what it must to provide them.
Complexity under the hood is unattractive, but it can be the right thing. The hybrid car that I drive, for example, is horrendously complex but handles my real-world driving chores while hiding its complexity inside. Hmm … “inside.” Something “inside.” Is there a new Apple slogan in that?
Peter Coffee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.