The dissection continues of Steve Jobs keynote address to the developers gathered in San Francisco for this weeks Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. Regardless of the resulting SPECmanship debate, and whether or not the forthcoming Power Macintosh G5 really should carry the Fastest Personal Computer sobriquet, the new machine should return some of the companys lost luster in the scientific and technical markets. And while some might expect the gains to come strictly from an evaluation of performance–hence the hubbub over the benchmarks–I expect technical customers will have a different checklist.
Certainly, the PowerPC 970 has plenty of floating point performance, and it showed its mettle in the real-world demonstrations of technical applications at the keynote. It ran rings around a dual-Xeon box with applications such as Wolfram Research Inc.s Mathematica 5 computation engine. This product is sold to a variety of platforms and would anyone suggest that Wolfram doesnt go out of its way to make sure that its products are sufficiently optimized for each platform?
Missing from the presentation was the announcement of a workstation-class graphics card for the new model. This lack has been a balking point for Apples pitch to high-performance customers for a while. The current Power Mac G4 models dont have a proper slot for high-end cards, the leg room for extended cards, or the additional power required to run them.
There was some grumbling when Apple showed the new G5 running the familiar consumer graphics cards instead of the workstation solutions with 128 Mbytes of memory, such as ATI Technologies Inc.s FireGL series or Nvidia Corp.s Quadro FX line. However, the new G5 machine does support AGP 8X Pro cards and Mac mavens poring over the images of the G5s logic board claim to have found the power breakout for these cards.
In addition, its easy to understand that Apple is trying to avoid some near-term market confusion by holding up support for these workstation-class graphics cards. No doubt they will require some driver-level support, which will only become available with the release of the Panther version of Mac OS X. Since that will follow the introduction of G5 machines by some months, the company is holding off on the announcements and thus a demonstration.
However, while the G5 processors performance, memory bandwidth, as well as its perceived value, may bring technical customers to the table, it may well be the “little things” that these boxes provide that will seal the deal.
In the early and middle 1990s, it was common to see Macs on science reports on the television, even as their market share in the general enterprise plummeted in comparison to Windows. As a reporter, I questioned many of the scientists and vendors in the segment about this situation. Their answer was somewhat surprising.
These customers appreciated “niceties” such as the Macs base-level support for SCSI storage, PostScript graphics and networking. Today, we assume that any consumer computer will offer easy expansion for peripherals and storage, support for a variety of networking protocols and rich graphics. That wasnt the case a even ten years ago.
The Mac was the first desktop computer to offer a SCSI port and quickly all Mac models supported the interface. The same design principal was applied to networking. Even as late as 1994, more than half of all PCs were not connected to a network, while the Mac offered easy-to-use, integrated networking since 1986, albeit using the proprietary LocalTalk protocol. Finally, along with integration of Adobe PostScript, the Mac brought forth the desktop publishing market.
As always, performance was important to these technical users. Still, they appreciated the flexibility and productivity that these integrated technologies provided to their workflows. That the Mac also needed less support also helped make it especially useful out in the field or in an research setting.
Of course, over time Microsoft and Intel have addressed these issues in the Windows platform. Theres still pockets of strong support for the Mac in some parts of the market or companies, such as in the biotech industry. But Windows has been making gains with applications traditionally run on Unix workstation. Or these companies have transitioned to Linux on an Intel platform.
So, what are the new G5 fine points that might woo these users back to the Mac? Its a similar list to the past one: wireless networking support, digital AV interfaces and a elegant, polished Unix interface with a powerful graphics engine.
For example, we would expect a workstation to provide Gigabit Ethernet. But 802.11g or Bluetooth wireless networking? Or both USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 interfaces? Nope. But if and when theyre needed–and they will be for data collection, video editing or field backup storage–there will be nothing additional needed to make them run, and no worries about third-party driver support.
The technical customer “will be coming in through the Linux window, except [they will find] a more robust and commercially-supported operating system,” predicted Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report.
History does repeat itself, even in the technical market.
David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.