Stand by your CPU

Apple executives had just opened the floor to questions after showing off Mac OS X at a March preview, when a reporter wanted to know about the processors that power the Mac. With only Motorola and IBM producing PowerPC chips, the reporter asked, wasn't Apple becoming too reliant on those two companies? The response from Apple CEO Steve Jobs was swift and merciless: "You don't know what you're talking about."

Indeed, the Apple-Motorola-IBM relationship--forged when the three companies developed the PowerPC chip a decade ago--doesn't show any signs of strain. IBM calls Apple one of its best customers, Apple publicly professes appreciation for its suppliers, and Motorola is just as effusive.

"In the computing space, Apple is one of our oldest and most strategic customers," comments Motorola Director of Communications William A. Swearingen.

Where Did Our Love Go?

If only all Mac users shared that love. IBM and Motorola take more than their share of flak from Mac users, mostly because of the megahertz gap between PowerPC chips and processors from Intel and AMD.

Whether Intel's Pentium chip is faster than a PowerPC is debatable (see " More Than Just Megahertz," Buzz, July 2001), but it's certainly a marketing nightmare for Apple. You can talk about gigaflops and dual-processor systems, but in the end casual computer shoppers are likely to gravitate toward the machine with the higher megahertz rating.

Add to this the fact that Motorola and IBM also sell the PowerPC as an embedded processor, a chip that runs consumer electronic devices at a set power level. Faster clock speeds aren't a priority for these devices; embedded chips just have to keep an appliance running. After all, you didn't buy your VCR because its processor is faster than a rival brand's.

The faster clock speeds Mac users crave are not necessarily a high priority for the PowerPC's manufacturers, because IBM and Motorola sell far more PowerPC chips to the embedded processor market than to Apple. Therefore, neither company is likely to change the chip's design just for Apple's sake. That has critics fuming that IBM and Motorola care more about developing the PowerPC for embedded uses than about meeting Apple's desktop needs.

Which is nonsense, according to Motorola's Swearingen. "The perception that development in embedded PowerPCs is contrary to [advances in] desktop PowerPCs is wrong," he says. "In fact, it's the opposite. The embedded market fuels desktop development."

AltiVec Inside?

There are other potential friction points. Motorola and Apple have embraced AltiVec as a way to get better 3-D, multimedia, and design performance. IBM hasn't.

IBM plans to add Single Instruction Multiple Data (SIMD) support to future PowerPCs. SIMD resembles AltiVec in that it allows more-efficient processing of complex redundant data. IBM's take on it could be different; nevertheless, IBM continues to show no interest in AltiVec.

Still, the AltiVec schism between IBM and Motorola may not necessarily be a bad thing, at least from Apple's perspective. If the chip makers take the PowerPC in different directions, Apple could enjoy the choices that two different suppliers would have to offer.

So don't look for Apple to ditch IBM or Motorola anytime soon. Apart from the companies' longstanding relationship, the PowerPC is one of few viable alternatives to X86 processors such as the Pentium. Dropping the PowerPC would cost Apple a great selling point: originality.

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