Whats Right About the PowerPC?

The reasons for Apple continuing on with the PowerPC appear strong. So what's with all the rumors of a switch to Intel? Besides, only Steve Jobs knows for sure.

If anything were guaranteed to set teeth gnashing in the executive suite at Apple Computers headquarters, it was Intels Thursday announcement of Yonah, the dual-core version of its Pentium Mobile processor line due next year for Windows notebooks. Or maybe not.

Over the weekend, the rumors of Apple switching from its PowerPC-based platform to some flavor of Intel chip kept growing. Perhaps these reports (or more likely the television crews camped out in Cupertino) caused apoplexy in the upper ranks as well. Or not.

The only certain bet is that on Monday morning, CEO Steve Jobs will take the stage at Apples Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco and pitch developers (again) on the goodness of the companys recently released "Tiger" version of Mac OS X. Everything else is speculation.

/zimages/2/28571.gifeWEEK Labs took a close look at Mac OS X 10.4, aka "Tiger," and said both merit strong consideration from non-Mac shops. Click here to read more.

Now, Intels Yonah platform sounds interesting. The two cores will boost performance for multithreaded applications (and will give some oomph to the next-generation version of Windows, which will no doubt need it).

But when running on the battery, the processor can shut down one core to improve power consumption. This will only sap the performance of processes that can take advantage of multiple cores—usually a minority of applications or functions, albeit important ones. The single core can also control all of the chips integrated 2MB Level 2 cache, instead of having a pair of smaller, dedicated caches.

Unlike the clarity from Intel on its mobile processors, the roadmap for the PowerPC G5 chips, Apples branding for the PowerPC 970, is missing from IBM and Freescale Semiconductor (formerly Motorolas SPSS chip group). This lack of fresh marketing pitches on the topic is often a portent of forthcoming announcements.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about forthcoming low-power and multicore PowerPC processors.

I find it difficult to understand the insistence by some in the industry that Apple would be attracted to Intels processor lines since, for the most part, the PowerPC is working well for it. Of course, the slow progress in some areas—the 3GHz speed bump and mobile procession—have produced some growing pains for its product grid (no relation to grid computing).

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he griped about the dozens of product lines in the company. Competing development teams produced lines with different logic board architecture or proprietary expansion cards. Or, the different marketing groups would work against each other, at times limiting the growth of some systems in market segments or dumbing down a systems capabilities to fit the positioning of a certain segment. In other words, a mess.

With the introduction of the PowerPC G3 models, Jobs slashed the number of designs and offered up a simple four-slot product grid: a desktop and notebook for professional customers (the Power Macintosh and PowerBook, respectively) and a similar set for consumers (iMac and iBook). Servers dont count. This strategy has worked well for Apple, and only a few expectations have strayed outside the grid, such as the Power Mac G4 Cube and the new Mac Mini models.

Next page: A few hard facts about Intel vs. PowerPC.