Is Apple going back to the PowerPC?

Is Apple going back to the PowerPC?

Summary: Hardware independence as a strategic weaponThe Forbes magazine scoop that Apple is buying P. A.

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Hardware independence as a strategic weapon The Forbes magazine scoop that Apple is buying P. A. Semiconductor, a Silicon Valley company that designs high-performance, power-sipping PowerPC chips - the very chips Apple just migrated away from - raises a host of questions. But the people who need to worry aren't customers. It's Apple's competitors who are sweating.

Apple's hardware independence Apple has always put architectural elegance ahead of mundane commercial issues like market share. The original 16-bit Macs used Motorola 68000 processors whose architecture was much cleaner - remember the 640k memory limit on the Intel 8086? - than the scaled-up-from-8-bit Intel designs.

But Intel crushed the superior architecture with a full court press on developers that Motorola failed to match. When the IBM PC blessed the Intel architecture, Motorola never recovered.

Apple's unique legacy Unlike other personal computer companies, Apple has twice migrated its entire customer base to new architectures: IBM's PowerPC in 1994; and Intel's x86 in 2006. In both cases the migrations went remarkably well. I went through both of them.

Announcing the move to Intel, Steve Jobs said that Apple had been porting each release of OS X to Intel for years. Providing a high-performance PowerPC emulator on the Intel Macs meant that for most users the transition was virtually invisible.

But it is clear that Apple learned a bigger lesson: don't get tied to one hardware vendor.

They put that lesson to good use on the hot-selling iPhone, whose 667 MHz ARM processor runs Mac OS X and the Safari browser. Another architecture with zero impact on users.

P. A. Semi's claim to fame Hey, it's Earth Day, everybody's green. But PA Semi has been doing it longer than most.

Their PA6T-168M has 2 2 GHZ 64-bit superscalar PowerPC processors linked by a coherent cross-bar fabric, 2 DDR2 memory controllers, 2 MB of cache, and an I/O system with 8 PCI express engines - with 4 GB/sec bandwidth for each engine, 4 GigE protocol engines AND 2 10 GigE engines that include line-rate packet filtering, VLAN flow control and TCP/IP acceleration.

Whew. And the whole thing dissipates just 5-13 watts.

To get into that territory the Intel Core family has to give up clock speed, bus bandwidth and I/O performance. The 10 watt U7600 has a 1.33 GHz processor clock speed, a 2 MB cache running at 1.2 GHz and a 533 MHz bus.

OK, PA Semi has great technology. How will Apple use it?

Gazing into the Storage Bits crystal ball It's a phone! No, its a supercomputer!

Some reasonable conclusions:

  • No PowerPCs in the iPhone. Those processors sip milliwatts - not watts - of power. The PA Semi skunkworks may have something in that range, but their focus has been high-performance computing - not mobile apps.
  • No PowerPC MacBooks either. Too many of the pro apps have been tuned for Intel's SSE instruction set to appeal to pro users. Intel is competitive at the notebook level - although the threat will keep them honest.
  • Apple TV on 'roids. All that I/O and compute would do wonders for an appliance media server. You don't want noisy fans and you DO want the ability to process 3D video, which means lots of bandwidth.

Sure, the Apple TV hasn't been very successful - yet. But as broadband reaches more homes and the studios work through their trust issues, a powerful and easy to use home media center will be a no-brainer.

One other possibility: a notebook appliance with the form factor of a MacBook Air or smaller - but without the option to run Intel optimized pro apps. But that's a stretch.

The Storage Bits take While the CPU specs are impressive, Apple has bought a superb design team whose low-power and I/O mojo are even more impressive. This is a media play, not a processor play.

But it is also a warning to competitors whose software is too tightly tied to hardware. Apple's hardware independence means they can change the game any time they want.

Like they just did.

Comments welcome, of course.

Update: to all who pointed to the public statements of Apple and PA Semi I just have one question: when did the obsessively secret Steve Jobs start tipping his hand in public? I missed that.

I'm sure the statements are true-enough-for-now - but Apple didn't pay $2 million per engineer just for mobile chip engineering - though I'm sure they're happy to have everyone believe they did. End update.

Topics: Processors, Apple, Hardware, Intel

About

Robin Harris has been a computer buff for over 35 years and selling and marketing data storage for over 30 years in companies large and small.

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31 comments
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  • Going Back to power PC?

    I think Apple's decision to go x86 with Intel is responsible for their increased popularity. The fact that you can have OS-X or Windows (Virtual or Natively) is a big sell point for them. If they go back to PowerPC they will have to fall back on software emulation and despite how powerful the PowerPC chip may be it will hurt the performance of an x86 OS. Maybe I am wrong but that's how I see it.
    bobiroc
    • true enough, but there's a flip side to that coin...

      Apple's reputation for being invulnerable to malware was due to several factors, including the much-referenced market share.

      But at least part of it was that fewer hackers knew how to, or wanted to bother to learn how to, program the PowerPC at the assembly language level. Nearly all hackers worthy of the name know how to program x86 at the assembly or even hex code level.

      Apple gave up that level of protection when they switched to Intel, and we’ve seen the results, with Macs finally getting malware of their own and being the first to fall in the hacker challenge.
      Joel R
  • RE: Is Apple going back to the PowerPC?

    Well since the XBOX 360 and PS3 use powerpc based chips, maybe Apple is getting into the game console business.
    mrlinux1@...
  • RE: Is Apple going back to the PowerPC?

    They maybe not change Mac or Mac book's cpu.

    I guess they have a new killer product coming.
    for example, and Multi-touch Tablet ...etc.

    But if they want to change the Mac back to use powerPC. I'm disagree. All of developer disagree.


    thx.
    kevinet
  • RE: Is Apple going back to the PowerPC?

    Ooooops! Right! Game console ... or HD 1080p Apple TV
    kevinet
  • RE: Is Apple going back to the PowerPC?

    It's comforting to know that at least one company,Apple, is out there, successfully , pursuing excellence , rather than swaying with the ill-winds of the Marketeers.
    In the general World situation , we are increasingly faced with the need to design,develop and use the best , not just more throw-away consumer products. Consumerism is what got us here in the first place.
    howlingengines@...
  • They didn't change the game ....

    ... they just joined it. Now they have invested in yet another low power CPU company. Anybody remember Gateway's investment in Transmeta. You claim their hardware independence gives them an advantage but doesn't owning a CPU company reduce that independence?
    ShadeTree
    • Transmeta Crusoe was a great chip

      As long as you didn't plan on running any applications.

      Truth be known, Transmeta processors simply sucked. There was no advantage to using a processor with the novel idea of using firmware to boost the speed. Doesn't work, don't try it.
      nucrash
  • Here's what Jobs said about it

    Per Wall Street Journal: " Mr. Jobs said
    the acquisition of P.A. had "everything
    to do with their talent and, in some
    cases, their technology" and that Apple
    intends to use the company's expertise
    in its portable electronics products. "To
    get the silicon we need to be able to run
    the sophisticated software we want to
    run on iPhones and iPods, you can't just
    go out and buy the chips off the shelf to
    do that," he said."

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120897
    821675839061.html
    j.m.galvin
    • Here's what P.A. Semi said about it

      This dovetails with what you wrote: P.A. Semi has
      been telling its clients that Apple isn't interested in
      their current lineup of chips or their roadmap, just
      their engineers and intellectual property. This pretty
      much negates the premise of Robin's article.

      http://eetimes.com/news/latest/showArticle.jhtml;js
      essionid=PZKTE2U1UAVMUQSNDLSCKHA?
      articleID=207401605
      buddhistMonkey
      • Oops...

        Here's a TinyURL for the broken link above:

        http://tinyurl.com/49w6tw
        buddhistMonkey
      • Do you really believe Steve would telegraph his strategy?

        When did that start? With the "people don't watch video"
        iPod?<br>
        <br>
        With the PowerPC vector processors are faster than Intel?
        <br>
        <br>
        With all the pre-announced iPhone features?
        <br>
        <br>
        uh-huh.<br>
        <br>
        Robin
        R Harris
  • I hope so!

    Back to PowerPC with OS-XI on the high end Apple machines with an OS-XI/86 version for the generic PCs as a pure software play timed to preempt "Windows 7" to archive world domination!
    wkulecz
    • OS-XI, huh?

      You point out the corner that Jobs has painted Mac into by calling the OS &ldquo;Mac OS [b]X[/b]&rdquo; to begin with.

      He stated that the &ldquo;X&rdquo; is [i]not[/i] the [i]letter[/i] &ldquo;X,&rdquo; but rather the Roman numeral ten (10). So, as you say, its successor would be &ldquo;Mac OS [b]XI[/b],&rdquo; [i]not[/i] &ldquo;Mac OS [b]Y[/b]&rdquo;

      But [i]either[/i] of those interpretations has limited growth room. &ldquo;Mac OS X&rdquo; just looks cool. The letter X is a cool logo, whether metallic, panther-spotted (10.3), or whatever. &ldquo;XI&rdquo;? Not so much. What happens a few more major versions down the road? &ldquo;Mac OS [b]XVIII[/b]&rdquo;!? Now that&rsquo;s just getting unwieldy!

      This is pretty much why what would otherwise be major new version releases of the OS have had point-release version numbers like 10.2 (Jaguar), 10.3 (Panther), 10.4 (Leopard), and 10.5 (Tiger), to date, causing many ignorant anti-Mac-zombies to accuse Apple for charging for service packs (10.1 [Puma] was in fact little more than a [badly needed] service pack, and Apple did [i]not[/i] charge for [i]it[/i], IIRC, but the rest have been at least as different from their predecessors as, say, Windows XP was from Windows 2000).

      Going by the [i]letter[/i] &ldquo;X&rdquo; is even [i]worse[/i]. We only have two more letters before the end of the alphabet, after all. Furthermore, both of them have built-in anti-Mac-zealot derogatory pun potential: &ldquo;Mac OS: WHY!?&rdquo; and &ldquo;Mac OS: Zzzzzzzzz&hellip;&rdquo; respectively. What would follow? Do like spreadsheet column headers and go with &ldquo;Mac OS AA&rdquo; and so on?

      Even the &ldquo;big cat&rdquo; code names are limited. We&rsquo;ve already used up the fastest (&ldquo;Cheetah&rdquo; &mdash; the original Mac OS X 10.0) and biggest/strongest (&ldquo;Tiger&rdquo; [10.5]) of the big cats. Next up is the Lion [10.6], the King of Beasts (but actually inferior to the Tiger in pretty much all real-world aspects as far as big cats go). What&rsquo;s next? We pretty much have to go downhill. Ocelot? Cougar? Bobcat? Siamese? Tabby? Calico (a genetic defect and not a proper breed [i]per se[/i] &mdash; most Calicos are female, and most of the few males are sterile)? This is even if they stay with &ldquo:Mac OS X&rdquo; and the &ldquo;10.x&rdquo; numbering! (Mac OS X 10.42.x!?)

      Really, I can&rsquo;t see any way out of this, except by coming up with some whole new name unrelated to &ldquo;Mac OS X.&rdquo;. Maybe &ldquo;Mac OS 11&rdquo;?
      Joel R
      • Leopard is the latest, Tiger was the last one

        You got them the wrong way around, it was Tiger before Leopard... True about the OSX moniker though. I believe they'll keep going with the point releases and at some point in future they'll switch to a new naming scheme.

        Mac OS 11? Pretty boring, but that's what they were called before X. OS8, OS9 etc.

        Maybe they'll call it something cool like Ubuntu. Except that name has already been taken. ;)
        james.faction
  • RE: Is Apple going back to the PowerPC?

    Apple just don't feel like Apples on Intel chips.
    bricar2
  • Hedging...

    If there's one thing we ought to have learned lately...it's that Jobs is thinking a couple steps ahead of the rest of the market. It's definitely possible that he's thinking about using the Power chips for AppleTV and/or iPhone...but I don't think we should underestimate what is going on with Intel vs. AMD, and that maybe he is prepping for the scenario of what happens if AMD folds? This purchase could likely be leverage against Intel in that case...or against whomever may buy AMD (IBM?). Apple needs to ensure it is not at the mercy of its CPU supplier, and even if not intending to play the PA-Power card in production units, its good to hold in your hand while negotiating pricing with the likes of Intel.
    Techboy_z
  • RE: Is Apple going back to the PowerPC?

    When Apple moved away from the PowerPC processor to Intel, I said that Apple will no longer be the same. But I agree with "bobiroc", I think the ability to run multiple OS's on one machine with Parallels or Fusion is a great asset for Apple machines.

    The new processor sounds good but is it too little too late? The new Intel processors coming out are 6 and 8 core crunchers. A clock speed under 2 GHz just doesn't cut it for me. We should be in the 5+ GHz catagory by now with little or none heat.

    IBM is working on a new processor that produces little or no heat (or so I have read). I think Jobs should consider this option as well. I don't want a laptop I can fry eggs on. I want a supercomputer in a laptop that stays cool and runs for ten hours on one recharge.
    metilley@...
    • RISC

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      bobdoskaen4
  • RISC

    While the performance of these chips might seem incredible, you have to keep in mind that PowerPC is a RISC architecture. You have always been able to get extremely good clock rates out of RISC, but you do less with each clock cycle.

    To say that PowerPC is more elegant than x86 is patently false. RISC was a strategy adopted in the 1970's to allow for pipelining instructions. Now that we have developed the technology to pipeline CISC, and get CISC processors running on nearly comparable clock rates there is no purpose for it.
    gtg781w