Can IBM, Moto get along?

News analysis: MacWEEK columnist Tony Smith ruminates on rumored rifts within the PowerPC alliance fueling Apple's CPU line.

LONDON -- What are we to make of the claims that Motorola has been nobbling IBM's attempts to supply Apple not only with all the extra PowerPC 7400 (a k a G4) processors it needs, but cheaper and faster ones than Motorola itself can provide?

It must be said that the allegations have been presented without any corroborative evidence. And -- so far at least -- none of the parties concerned have made any official comment. We're solidly in rumorland here, but such is the importance of the PowerPC alliance to Apple that it's worth taking a closer look at the allegation. Even if there's nothing factual to the claims -- if they're simply a distillation of the hostility one "partner" feels for another -- that exposes the cracks in what's always been portrayed officially as three good chums working in harmony.

So what charges are being leveled at Motorola? Essentially, that it's using certain clauses within IBM's license to use its AltiVec -- or the Velocity Engine, as Apple now calls it -- to prevent IBM (IBM) from selling chips to Apple. The key to the story is IBM's previous indifference to AltiVec. When Motorola (mot) unveiled the technology back in 1998, hailing it as a major advancement in desktop processing power, which it is, IBM's response was a lukewarm "we'll take a look and see what we think." Not exactly the overwhelming statement of support Motorola was looking for.

But consider IBM's position. IBM's focus has long been on server and workstation applications. The Power chip set PowerPC evolved out of was originally developed for IBM's large-scale servers and workstations containing multiple CPUs operating together. IBM's has always been a brute-force approach to computing horsepower, which is essentially what "pure" RISC is all about.

AltiVec, on the other hand, was developed primarily to help Motorola target the embedded market, in particular customers interested in Digital Signal Processor (DSP) applications. DSPs are designed to manipulate large streams of data in well-defined formats. Motorola's goal was to develop a technology that could allow a general-purpose chip to do the same thing without taking any performance hit -- in other words, to allow it to sell CPUs to DSP buyers. And what, asked IBM, do DSP-clones have to do with us and our servers? On the face of it, not an awful lot.

The result was the first real split in the PowerPC alliance, and it held out the very real prospect of IBM heading off in one direction and Motorola taking the architecture in another. And, until last year, that's pretty much what has happened. Apple's need to present a united front to the world -- after all, it's staked its future on the PowerPC in the face of almost overwhelming competition from the Intel-led x86 world -- has ensured the split hasn't rattled the public too much.

While Motorola has pushed the G4 and AltiVec, IBM has pursued its own Power chips, all of them developed to operate along far more traditional RISC lines than the semi-RISC G4. The architectures are broadly compatible, but you can't slot, say, a Power 3 inside a Power Mac G4 and expect it to work right.

However, some eight months after IBM initially dismissed AltiVec and fell out with Motorola, it discovered that it might have made a bad move. While AltiVec remained of little interest to Big Blue server developers, a company called ArtX, which develops 3-D graphics systems, had been sounding out IBM as a possible supplier for the core processing technology for Nintendo's successor to the N64 games console.

The apparent appeal to ArtX was not only IBM's ability to manufacture large quantities of CPUs at a good price -- Big Blue's chip fabrication processes are among the best in the field -- but also AltiVec's potential for accelerating 3-D graphics, video streams and the like. Sony's Emotion Engine, the core of the recently released PlayStation2, has an AltiVec-style system of its own, and ArtX knew Nintendo (ntdoy) would need something similar if it were to compete with the Sony box.

At the same time, Apple (aapl) was not only continuing to tell IBM that it wanted it back in the alliance, but that it was keen to extend its contract to buy PowerPC 750 (aka G3) chips from Big Blue to take in the then-upcoming G4 too. When IBM snubbed AltiVec, Motorola struck back by saying AltiVec and the G4 were inseparable. In turn, IBM said, "Yah boo sucks to you then! We won't back G4, either."

With the Nintendo Dolphin a likely design win, IBM must have gone back to Motorola to negotiate the right to use AltiVec. It got it, and by the end of 1998, IBM staffers were saying that the two companies would once again be firm friends. "The three companies [Apple, IBM and Motorola] are motivated to cooperate, and we will cooperate," Mike Attardo, then-general manager of IBM's Microelectronics Division, told EE Times.

And eventually, that's what happened. Last autumn, IBM announced it had gotten the Nintendo gig to develop a 400MHz PowerPC chip code-named Gekko, and not long after, Apple said it had signed up IBM to provide it with PowerPC G4s. Only one problem: By this stage, Motorola had already been forced to admit it couldn't ship a 500MHz G4 that worked at that speed, and Apple had publicly said its financial results would be adversely affected by Motorola's production problems.

And they may again. Comments from other sources suggest that Motorola is still having a tough time getting its G4 yields up, particularly above 500MHz, which the chip can now deliver thanks to a recent revision of the silicon. IBM, on the other hand, is said to be well able to churn out all the extra CPUs Apple needs. The snag: Motorola allegedly is preventing it from doing so.

It's certainly possible that Motorola would add a "no competition" clause to IBM's AltiVec licensing agreement and that IBM would accept it on the grounds the CPU it was developing for Nintendo was not for widespread release. But by getting back at IBM this way -- Motorola clearly hasn't forgotten IBM's initial rejection of its technology -- it risks seriously annoying Apple, one of its major customers.

Then again, Apple has no choice but to stick with Motorola for now. Mac OS X makes such a move away from PowerPC easier, but it hasn't even shipped yet; we can probably rule out a switch to Intel at this stage. Apple needs Motorola far more than Motorola needs Apple. And having been blamed for the dip in Apple's Q4 1999 results, Motorola may now not be feeling too kindly to its PowerPC partner.

It's a recipe for disaster, but fortunately each company's interests are best served by cooperation rather than confrontation. All three clearly do have their differences -- some more than others -- but at this point, they really must come together. Intel and AMD are already at 1GHz, and they're not going to wait around for IBM and Motorola to catch up.

Tony Smith is managing editor at The Register, the IT industry newswire with attitude. He welcomes comments, leaks, tip-offs and industry gossip at