IBM plots next PowerPC chips

The company's late-summer processor releases could make their way into a variety of embedded applications as well as the next wave of Apple PowerBooks

IBM is cooking up a series of late-summer PowerPC launches that could put its RISC processors back in the limelight, especially for Mac users.

According to sources, the company will mark the 10th anniversary of its PowerPC alliance with Motorola and Apple by refreshing three of its PowerPC chip families for several market categories, ranging from portable computers and Internet appliances to embedded and wireless applications.

With its new embedded offerings, sources said, IBM is angling for a market it has largely left to Motorola while focusing on the personal computer and server markets. Meanwhile, IBM's plans to revamp its 750, or G3, series could mean a performance boost for buyers of portable Mac systems from Apple.

The new G3 chips include the 750CX and 750CXe, code-named SideWinder, both of which will be aimed at portable computers, among other devices. The 750CX will range in speed from 350MHz to 550MHz, while the 750Cxe will range from 500MHz to 700MHz, sources said. The sources added that the chips are sampling now at speeds of up to 500MHz, and volume production is slated for August or September.

The late-summer arrival of the new G3 chips could coincide with a rumoured next-generation PowerBook from Apple, currently the only PC maker to offer a PowerPC-based notebook. According to sources, Apple's new pro PowerBook, tentatively scheduled for September, will be based on the same motherboard design as the current PowerBook generation, which Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled at February's Macworld Expo/Tokyo.

The inclusion of an enhanced G3 in Apple's next notebook would come as a surprise to some Mac handicappers who have been looking ahead to a PowerBook that includes the PowerPC G4, the chip that currently runs Apple's top-of-the-line desktop systems. The G4 processor features the Motorola-developed AltiVec, or Velocity Engine, extensions for enhanced multimedia performance, a feature absent from Motorola's and IBM's G3s.

Don Granberry, Houston-based contributor to MacEdition.com, a Mac industry Web site aimed at the professional market, lauded IBM's decision to focus on speeding the G3 instead of focusing its efforts on the G4 chip.

"I have a sneaking hunch that someone at IBM is snickering behind their hand," Granberry said. "What will be the performance difference between a 750MHz G3 and a 300MHz G4 if the software is not using AltiVec? Guess which one will make Word scroll faster and Excel finish calculating sooner?

"Sooner or later, Motorola will work out their production problems with AltiVec, and we will eventually see higher clock speeds in that technology. While Motorola hammers away at their unanticipated kinks, I suspect we will get symmetrical multiprocessing, which is more important than clock speed in the long run."

According to ZDNet News sources, Apple demonstrated Mac OS X running on a dual-processor Power Mac prototype at last week's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, to show off the new OS' support for symmetrical multiprocessing.

Will professional users of portable systems be disappointed if the next Apple system is a G3, not a G4? "I don't think so," Granberry said, "at least not for this coming generation of laptops. Most of them don't need what the G4 does."

"I don't think that pro users currently need the capabilities of AltiVec in a portable," added Michael C. Gemar, a MacEdition associate editor and Web designer based in Toronto. "Most graphics-intensive work, where the Velocity Engine really shines, is done at the desktop, not in the field or on a plane. Of course, Mac OS X is said to take advantage of the Velocity Engine for a wide variety of system-level functions, such as the GUI, and a G4 might very well be desirable there. But it looks like OS X is still at least six to eight months away -- plenty of time for Apple to release models equipped with the new IBM G3 and then upgrade the line to G4s in January 2001 at Macworld San Francisco."

Apple did not immediately return calls requesting comment.

To Part II

Gate-crashing Apple's WWDC: For Mac news, the annual developers show is the holy of holies. But this year's model offered limited thrills and chills. And who better to bring you all the Apple news and gossip -- Matthew Rothenberg...

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