Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

PowerPC chip hits fork in the road

Motorola and IBM have very different plans for the PowerPC chip, raising questions about its future as the processor powering the Macintosh.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
4 min read
Motorola and IBM have very different plans for the PowerPC chip, raising questions about its future as the processor powering the Macintosh.

IBM and Motorola both produce PowerPC chips and currently supply them to Apple and other hardware makers.

But the continuing fallout from the dissolution of a seven-year Somerset partnership indicates that IBM is now focusing its PowerPC chips, more than ever, on internal server computers, likely leaving Motorola as the sole major supplier to Apple, according to analysts. IBM will continue to develop 64-bit PowerPC chips for its AS/400 and RS/6000 server and workstation lines.

Motorola is also looking elsewhere. Though it will continue to produce 32-bit chips for the Macintosh, the company is eyeing communications equipment and other areas for PowerPC uses which may prove just as lucrative for the chipmaker and would allow it to defray significant Macintosh-specific development costs.

This fork in the PowerPC road has its starting point in June of last year when IBM and Motorola dissolved a partnership at the vaunted Somerset design center in Austin, Texas.

Now, recent movements suggest the beginning of a cooling off of chip development for the Macintosh as Motorola alone tackles development of the next generation of "G4" PowerPC processors, according to analysts. Apple's Macintosh was ranked No. 7 worldwide in computer shipments in the fourth quarter of last year, according to International Data Corp., shipping over one million units in that period.

"Having only Motorola do PowerPC development for Apple isn't as good as having IBM help too," said Linely Gwennap, publisher and editorial director of the Microprocessor Report. Motorola has typically trailed IBM in so-called "process" technology, the ultra-fine circuit etching techniques used to make chips, and thereby lagged behind IBM in bringing out the fastest chips.

IBM revealed aggressive plans for the PowerPC processor at a major chip conference in February. The company has been touting its advanced copper and SOI chip technology that will lead to chips running as fast as 1.1 GHz, almost three times the raw speed of today's processors.

But the emphasis at IBM these days is on 64-bit chips that are used in its in-house computer lines--not the Macintosh. "64-bit is not a roadmap for the Mac," said Dennis Cox, a senior technical staff member with IBM's AS/400 group.

Though IBM has 32-bit chips--running as fast as 580 MHz--that could be used on the Macintosh, it is not clear whether Apple Computer will use them, according to Cox and others at IBM.

Meanwhile, Motorola is moving in a direction with a different emphasis, based on its Altivec software technology for improving communications and multimedia performance.

While Motorola is still committed to the Macintosh, it is also targeting the technology at the communications market which analysts said could prove to be quite lucrative.

Motorola is aiming the Altivec instructions for hardware which, for example, controls pools of modems at large companies or as a processor for cat scanners, according to Will Swearingen, an executive at Motorola's semiconductor operations.

There is no official word yet when Apple will sign on to Altivec. "Apple is committed but they haven't said when," said Swearingen. Apple would not comment.

Other sources claim, however, that Apple is fully committed to Altivec and will reveal systems later this year that exploit the technology.

An IBM spokesperson said it could use Altivec technology in chips if it chooses to do so but would not comment beyond this.

The reasons for IBM's slow retreat is tied to a shrinking market, said analysts. Had Apple continued to allow Macintosh clones to be produced, the outlook might have been different. "Looking backwards, Apple's half-hearted approach to cloning killed the PowerPC's Macintosh opportunity," said Nathan Brookwood, an independent chip analyst in Saratoga, California.

Others see the PowerPC processor falling behind because of lack of incentives. "The problem is whether or not Apple will pay Motorola enough to get the processors that they desire; my suspicion is that they may have made that decision already, and that the PowerPC will fall behind," said Martin Reynolds, a chip analyst with Gartner Group Dataquest.

"On the other hand, Apple is no longer a performance story and the issue may well be irrelevant," he adds.

Gwennap says Motorola won't be as focused on Apple as it has been in the past. "The problem is that Motorola is now pushing PowerPC into [other] markets, so it may not be as responsive to Apple's needs," he said, mentioning the "embedded market" as a primary target for Motorola with its new architecture segment which covers everything from communications devices to industrial products and handheld computers.

"Motorola sees the PowerPC as part of its own opportunities in communications. Therefore, they will drive it upwards but with technologies such as Altivec that suit their needs," said Dataquest's Reynolds.

Meanwhile, IBM looks inward. "IBM can easily justify continued development Of non-merchant PowerPC components for its own system lines, based on the much larger revenues those lines generate. AS/400 is a $4 billion or $5 billion business, and S/390 is slightly larger," said Brookwood.

"Given the tremendous importance high-performance Power chips have for IBM's system products, and the relatively small size of the general-purpose Power PC [Macintosh] merchant market, it's not surprising to see IBM leave this opportunity to Motorola," Brookwood said.

The current state of the PowerPC, which was originally envisioned as a major competitor to Intel's x86 chip family, contrasts with the furious pace of the Intel-based market, driven by fierce competition between Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, National Semiconductor's Cyrix arm, and other Intel-architecture chip competitors.