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Spec to help Mac fight back

Mac OS-based development should surge when Power Computing's new PPCP specification systems appear later this year.

Power Computing likes to say it is fighting back for the Mac. Soon it will have a fighting chance to prove its mettle.

Development of new MacOS-based computers from Power Computing should accelerate when new systems start appearing later this year based on the open-standard PowerPC Platform specification (PPCP).

"[PPCP] frees the field for competition," says Bill Goins, director of marketing for Power Computing. The opportunity "for vendors will be an order of magnitude greater," he adds.

Although the PPCP specification has faltered badly over the last few years and has been egregiously behind schedule--and has suffered from recent decisions by IBM and Motorola not to come out with PowerPC systems that run Windows NT--the specification now appears to be near completion. The first systems from Power Computing could appear this summer.

PPCP, formerly known as the Common Hardware Reference Design (CHRP), is intended to provide an open standard for PowerPC system designs that use industry standard components and run multiple operating systems, including Apple's (AAPL) Mac OS, AIX, and Microsoft's Windows NT.

The problem to date for Power Computing has been that clone manufacturers have had to receive certification from Apple before they ship systems, a time-consuming process which slows down the development of new computers, according to Goins. PPPC will change all of this since it will be an open standard not tied directly to Apple.

Even Apple thinks so. "The whole problem with the way MacOS and hardware development had historically been done at Apple was that in addition to certifying how the OS works on clones, we had to certify our own software on [numerous] hardware systems. This has been a nightmare," says Pieter Hartsook, vice president of marketing research and analysis at Apple. Last year when Gilbert Amelio took the helm of Apple, he pledged to simplify the design process by reducing the number of different computer designs Apple uses, Hartsook notes.

With PPCP, it will only be necessary to make sure a system is compliant with the PPCP specification. This allows for more flexiblity in Mac clone designs, and could pave the way for Mac-based network computers and a greater variety of notebooks, among other things. The benefit for consumers will be more rapid advances in the performance of systems as well as an increased supply of systems as vendors draw on a larger pool of component suppliers.

Power Computing believes that the current certification process is "an artificial limit on the rate of change," according to Goins.

The PPCP specification will "free the engineers to move platforms forward rather than to try and certify some unusual hardware configurations," Hartsook says. For licensees, that means greater freedom in designing their systems and no required specialized support from Apple's engineers "to make sure it runs," Hartsook adds.

For example, while processor speeds have continued to jump upwards to as high as 250 MHz, bus speeds (the speeds at which the processor talks to the rest of the system) have been limited to 50 MHz in most systems. Both Goins and representatives from IBM said that the PPCP spec will allow bus speeds of 75 MHz to 80 MHz, possibly as soon as this summer.

The faster bus speeds are badly needed for super-fast processors such as the 500-MHz chip from Exponential as well as upcoming PowerPC 603e and 604e processors that will run at clock speeds of 300 MHz.

Apple, for its part, expects that customers will be able to take the PPCP systems it ships and run either the Mac OS or Windows NT, Hartsook said. He added that most customers will not opt for dual-boot configurations--where the user can boot two OSs on one system--but rather PPCP will give users flexibility in how they deploy their systems throughout the company.

He gave the example of an IS manager who wants to run some boxes on NT and others on the Mac OS. Hartsook was quick to point out that Apple would probably not ship systems with NT, this would be left to the customer to install.