Mac Musings


Daniel Knight - March 9, 2000 -

Over the past weeks, writers on various Mac sites have slowly stripped away the veneer from the AIM (Apple, IBM, Motorola) consortium. Some have built conspiracy theories (Motorola's revenge on Apple for ending cloning, on IBM for initially rejecting AltiVec), but a lot of interesting tidbits have emerged. They paint the picture of three anticompetitive companies.

Motorola vs. Motorola

The biggest problem the AIM consortium has, at least as far as Mac users are concerned, is the 500 MHz G4 processor. No, there's nothing wrong with the chip itself - it offers stunning performance. The problem is that Motorola took forever (in computer terms) to reach the 500 MHz mark and seems stuck there for the next few months (also forever in computer terms).

Motorola is not first and foremost a computer company. They make chips for pagers, cell phones, cars, and who knows how many other things. Their goal is not to make the best CPU for computers, since that's a relatively minor part of their business, but to sell boatloads of chips for consumer use. Joining the AIM consortium and developing a powerful RISC processor with IBM was a way to create a less costly, more marketable family of consumer chips. The PowerPC family of CPUs was just the tip of the iceberg.

As others have noted, Motorola has a reputation for reliable chips, but not for being on the cutting edge of processor speed. Except for the "wicked fast" 40 MHz Macintosh IIfx of 1990, in the era of the 33 MHz 80386, Macs have rarely had MHz parity with the Intel world. That situation has worsened over the past few years.

It was everything Motorola could do to produce the 500 MHz G4 in sufficient quantities that Apple could actually re-announce and ship the Power Mac G4 at 500 MHz. Sources agree that it will take a new chip design to push Motorola's G4 beyond the 500 MHz mark.

Motorola vs. IBM

The G3 processor was a brilliant breakthrough, offering more power per CPU cycle than the previous 601, 603, and 604 processors - and handily outperforming the Intel Pentium II at the same clock speed. (I'm sure you recall the ads claiming the G3 processor was up to twice as fast, which was true for a certain class of calculations.)

Motorola and IBM had different road maps for the PowerPC family, which caused them to diverge after the G3. Motorola wanted to add consumer-oriented features such as AltiVec for the consumer market. IBM wanted to keep pushing the envelope on speed and multiprocessing power. In the end, Apple embraced Motorola's version of the G4, a chip marginally superior to the G3 but with an incredible "Velocity Engine" to supercharge a limited range of functions.

Here's where it gets interesting: Nintendo was seriously interested in using a PowerPC processor as the core of their next generation game machine. IBM wanted that, but needed to license the once-spurned AltiVec technology from Motorola. Tony Smith (Can IBM and Motorola get along?, MacWeek) speculates that IBM may have been forced to sign a noncompetition clause to obtain the technology, one that prevents them from selling faster processors than Motorola.

In a perverse way, it makes sense. There have been stories of 650 MHz G4 processors in IBM prototypes, processors that IBM can't sell to Apple or even use in their own computers. The only way this makes sense is if IBM is constrained from selling faster G4s than Motorola.

Motorola vs. Apple

Here's the part of the conspiracy theory I don't buy, that Motorola is somehow punishing Apple for killing off the Mac clones. The Motorola StarMax clones were strictly utilitarian beige-boxes that didn't show any of the innovation seen in the DayStar, Power Computing, or Umax SuperMac lines. They worked, but lacked the style of the Macintosh and the other clones.

Sure, losing cloning cost Motorola millions, but they're a huge company that understands risk. I can't see them holding back on a faster G4 to punish Apple. It just doesn't make sense.

Apple vs. Apple

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

If ever Apple shot itself in the foot, it was on August 31, 1999. That was the day they unveiled the amazing Power Macintosh G4 at 400, 450, and 500 MHz with Motorola's incredible "Velocity Engine."

It was also the day Apple killed the Power Macintosh G3, a computer available in speeds to 450 MHz. Apple could have bumped the G3 to 500 MHz, which is what a lot of people expected, since the G4 was assumed to be not quite ready for prime time (and, as far as the G4/500 goes, that was definitely the case). Instead, the G4 buried the G3 as the Mac professional's CPU of choice on August 31, 1999.

That's a shame, because rumors of 600 MHz G3 processors have been around for months, followed by rumored 650, 700, and now 800 MHz versions of the CPU used in every Apple computer except for the Power Macintosh.

Despite that fact that the G4 is only marginally superior to the G3 (except for a handful of specialized programs, see Comprehensive list of G4 accelerated software, Mac Speed Zone), Apple chose to offer only the G4 in the Power Mac.

Worse yet, Apple is keeping the brakes on the rest of the product line so they won't be perceived as in any way superior to the Power Macintosh, since it is their flagship model. The PowerBook can match the Power Mac MHz for MHz, but with an "inferior" processor. Both the iMac and iBook must remain a step or two behind on the MHz front, since they are labeled consumer computers.

Assuming IBM does have a faster G4, yet is constrained by an anti-competition clause with Motorola, that should still make it possible for them to sell faster G3s. And if the rumors about those G3s are true, you can believe a lot of Mac owners would embrace them.

But between Motorola's restraint of competition and Apple's desire to keep the Power Mac G4 a flagship model, we're stuck at 500 MHz.

And it's all because of corporate politics.

Apple vs. the Clones

This never would have happened if Power Computing, Umax, and Motorola (among others) were producing Macintosh clones today. Conspiracy theories aside, they would have found a way to ship Power Mac G4 killers using 600 MHz and faster G3 processors.

Don't believe it? Today you can buy a G3/500 ZIF upgrade for US$700 - or a G4/400 for about the same price. And unless you run AltiVec enabled programs a lot, the G3/500 will give you better overall performance.

If anything, clones would make deep cuts into Apple's sales on the top end, an area where the clones were always too competitive for Apple's own good. Imagine a Power Computing or Umax SuperMac machine with five 66 MHz 64-bit PCI slots and a 4x AGP slot offering consumers the choice of a G4/500 or G3/700 at a similar price to Apple's G4/500. Anyone whose ever used a SuperMac or Power Computing machine knows these would seriously cut into Apple's market on the high end.

However, we're not here to rehash the old arguments about cloning. Continued cloning would have eviscerated Apple. That's a given.

But continued cloning would have kept Apple honest. They'd be as limited as IBM on the G4 front, but they would be running with the G3 toward the 800 MHz mark, even if it meant limited production run processors. Remember, especially with Power Computing, it was an issue of bragging rights.

Yet that won't happen, nor can we expect Newer Tech, Sonnet, XLR8, PowerLogix, or others to offer G3 upgrades for older Macs in that speed range. Why not? Because there's not a large enough market for IBM to ramp up production until Apple is ready for a G3/550 in the PowerBook or iMac - and that won't happen until the G4/550 is available.

In the end, we all suffer because of Apple's decision to kill off the Power Macintosh G3 on August 31, 1999. From that day forward, the speed of every Mac has been held in check by Motorola's limited ability to produce faster G4 processors.

That's a big part of the reason there's no 600 MHz PowerBook, why the iMac peaks at 400 MHz (although that could go to 450 MHz now that the G4/500 is shipping), and why Apple and the Mac market still consider 300 and 366 MHz iBooks viable.

Every Mac is held back to avoid competing with the flagship, and the flagship is held back by Motorola's production problems and the purported anti-competition agreement that prevents IBM from selling faster G4s.

As I noted last week, the G4 debacle isn't all Apple's fault. But between Apple's desire to keep the Power Mac G4 their speed champion and Motorola's production problems, Apple looks hopelessly mired in the past while the Wintel world enters the GHz era.

If only Apple had the savvy to run with a fast G3, we'd no longer suffer the indignity of AMD and Intel kicking sand in our faces.

And that's the honest truth.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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