Will Mac Dark Horse Take the Lead?

Of all the symbols of the Mac ecosystem's proud independence from the status quo, the timing of Macworld Expo/San Francisco is one of the most durable.

Of all the symbols of the Mac ecosystems proud independence from the status quo, the timing of Macworld Expo/San Francisco is one of the most durable.

Falling during the first weeks of January, this venerable trade show has complicated the holiday schedules of Mac developers, enthusiasts and journalists alike since the platforms infancy.

At the same time, Expo affords Apple Computer Inc. and its closest associates a bully pulpit from which to set the years Mac agenda before the Wintel competition has even shaken off its collective champagne hangover.

Running ahead of the pack has sometimes left Apple uncomfortably exposed to skeptical eyes; viz. the rambling, two-hour-plus 1997 keynote presentation that marked the beginning of the end of CEO Gil Amelios tenure (even as it ushered in the return of Steve Jobs to the Apple helm).

This year, by contrast, I suspect Macworld Expo will feed much-needed fuel to the market for this hardy minority platform.

Apple security is as tight as its ever been about unannounced products. Nevertheless, the buzz across the Mac Web insists that the company will use next months event to take the wraps off an enhanced line of professional desktop systems that will breeze past the 1-GHz barrier.

If the reports are at all accurate, the new Power Macs will also gain an assortment of other technological enhancements designed to catch the eye of Mac aficionados and Windows voyeurs alike.

Like Christmas goose or Hanukkah latkes, Apple-related hardware rumors are best consumed with a healthy helping of salt. However, there are some common elements in the reports that seem to reflect the general contours of Apples next towers, and its one that jibes with my own sources gleanings.

You say G5, and I say G4

The Register U.K. has been among the most bullish chroniclers of the new systems, which Managing Editor Tony Smith maintains will feature the PowerPC G5, the next generation of Motorolas RISC processor. According to Smiths reports, some samples of the unreleased chip have achieved a clock speed of 2.4 GHz. The G5s that have been seeded to select developers in prototype Power Mac systems clock in at 1.2, 1.4 and 1.6 GHz, he writes, although a shortage of the top-speed chips might prompt Apple to deliver 1.0-, 1.2- and 1.4-GHz flavors at Expo.

Furthermore, The Register reports, the new boxes will offer blistering front-side bus speeds in the neighborhood of 400 MHz as well as Gigawire, a new sobriquet that Smith speculates represents enhanced FireWire connectivity technology based on the IEEE 1394b spec.

Like Yours Truly, some Mac watchers are less confident than The Register that the G5 is actually ready for prime time. For example, Nick dePlume of Think Secret asserts that the Expo systems will pack the Motorola PowerPC 7460, the as-yet-untapped top-of-the-line G4 model code-named Apollo, running at speeds of up to 1.4 GHz. (Like my own sources, dePlume suggests that Apple has discussed with Motorola the possibility of renaming this chip "G5" for marketing purposes, thus helping to explain the discrepancies in the reports.)

The relatively sober Mac mavens are already predicting that Apples hardware engineers will "trounce" the PC competition in 2002. While they caution that PowerPC processors faster than 1.6 GHz have not been free from errors, they report that "G5 processor development has progressed beautifully over the last few months." (Unlike those of us with our eyes on the San Francisco show, Architosh cautions that Apple may not have the new gear ready until Macworld Tokyo in March.)

Really big show

Minor discrepancies notwithstanding, Mac moles across the Web are nearly unanimous when it comes to predicting big things for the Power Mac line at the San Francisco Expo.

Apples hardware guru Jon Rubinstein makes some valid points in his tireless efforts to dispel the "megaherz myth" that places undue emphasis on raw clock speeds at the expense of the sort of vector-crunching niceties at which the PowerPC excels. Nevertheless, a leap from the current 867-MHz ceiling to a new top of the line in the 1.4- to 1.6-GHz range would represent a serious boost in performance for Mac professionals and a valuable opportunity to quell the catcalls of Intel and AMD partisans already pushing past the 2-GHz limit.

A jump of that size would also indicate that Motorola has truly shaken off the engineering doldrums that has slowed the rise of fast new Macs since the Power Mac G4 was first introduced in August 1999.

Even more dramatic, a boost in bus speed from the current 133-MHz limit to anything in the neighborhood of 400 MHz will prove that Apple still has the engineering moxie to trump its gargantuan competitors.

Regular readers know that Im the most conservative of technology adopters, especially when adoption entails shelling out my own money. However I must confess that a jump of anywhere near this magnitude will tempt me to make a purchase, recessionary doldrums be damned.

With any luck, Apples latest boxes will receive that kind of response throughout the Mac community -- and just maybe far beyond it.

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