Apple cuts employees and loses millions, but the future’s never looked brighter. Why it’s time to ditch the Intel/Microsoft platform. Proof that Codeine dependency is an ugly thing. Updated for ’98.
The Rebirth of the Macintosh
Doomsayers and Windows users not withstanding, the Macintosh computer platform and perhaps even Apple Computer, Inc. are on the verge of entering a renaissance period the likes of which hasn’t been since, well, the renaissance. I’m positive that this rosy view, held by virtually no one outside of the Macintosh cognoscenti, will utterly shock some of you. Well, kindly pick your jaw up off the floor as Apple declares another $700 million loss, and follow closely…
Wintel: That Whooshing Sound Is An Ego Deflating
The Macintosh is currently the fastest single-processor desktop computer available, easily outpacing Intel’s Pentium and Pentium Pro models. Apple has just started shipping a 250-MHz model that would simply blow the doors off anything Intel has to offer if Intel shipped anything with doors on it. I’ll expand on this point in a moment, but this speed gap is only going to grow wider. Intel is poised to catch up approximatelyâ€”and this is a estimateâ€”when pigs fly.
Perhaps amazingly, because of clone competition and recent Apple price cuts, the Macintosh is now just as affordable (if not more so) than comparably-powered Windows machines. About a year or so ago, Apple licensed out its technology to clone manufacturers (among them: Power Computing, UMAX, Motorola, Pioneer, IBM). This competition has had the same happy effect on the Macintosh marketplace as it had on the IBM-PC marketplace: prices dropped precipitously. There is now no good reason to avoid Macintosh technology if you’re in the market for a new computer.
[Note of 2/6/98: Even without the Mac cloners this price-performance ratio has held up.]
One reason this is true is because the future belongs to the PowerPC chip. Intel might be shipping a lot of Pentiums currently, but because of the chip’s design they’ve about maxxed it out in terms of speed. Their new “P6” (or “Klamath”) chip runs at 250-MHz in prototype, but it runs so hot that you literally need a refrigerator under the table to keep the machine from bursting into flames. No kidding. I’m sure they’ll solve the heat problems sooner or later, but by contrast, some inexpensive 266-MHz PowerPC G3 machines will ship this fall (if not sooner). Relatively inexpensive 300-MHz 604e-based PowerPCs will ship in bulk before the end of 1997 as well. In other words, mighty mass market Mac models make massively more MIPs maÃ±ana. (If anyone’s interested, the 266-MHz Mac G3s can run a software-only Windows emulator about the speed of a 133-MHz MMX Pentium.)
Intel has tried, as a stopgap measure, to introduce an “MMX” component to its Pentium chips, but that’ll only give you a 10 to 30 percent speed boost, and then only if the software you’re running has been optimized for it. I’m here to tell you the MMX is irrelevant to the future of the desktop computer. It’s like adding high octane gas to your Yugo. By the time everybody on the Wintel platform is using MMX, the Macs will be going so much faster it won’t matter anymore.
Intel finds themselves in this strange position because they’re pushing CISC technology instead of RISC technology like the PowerPC. Now I’m barely qualified to write this essay let alone explain the difference between these two technologies, but the real-world difference is that CISC is a lot slower and at 200-MHz, it can’t be pushed much faster without substantial cooling hardware. It’s 1970s technology, after all.
Macintosh made its jump from CISC to RISC a couple of years ago when it moved from the Mac II and Quadra lines to the Power Mac computers. It wasn’t a seamless transition, but it wasn’t a bad one: most of the old software was able to run on the new machines, and for those that upgraded the PowerPC-optimized software was a lot faster. Intel still needs to make that technological jump, because in terms of chips, CISC technology gets bigger and hotter (which is bad) and RISC technology gets smaller and cooler (which is good).
For this very reason, The CISC/RISC distinction is crucial in the area of laptop computers. Apple’s PowerBooks can get increasingly faster will Intel-based models will be stuck at lower clock speeds because of cooling problems. Don’t be surprised if Apple comes out with a PowerBook which is faster than any Wintel desktop machine.
Speed to Burn, Part 2: The Mac OS
Apple has been rightly criticized in the last couple of years for their inability to bring a modern operating system (OS) to fruition. The chasm-like gap that used to exist between the Mac and IBM-PC operating systems has closed considerably with the advent of Microsoft’s Windows 95. Personally, I think 95 is a dog, albeit a dog I’m forced to pet nicely on the head every day thanks to business considerations. Still, there’s no denying that 95 is a monumental leap toward parity and quite a technological achievement given the really lame, jerry-rigged hardware setup its forced to work on.
As some of you may know, Apple recently dropped $430 million to acquire NeXT, a software company with a really cool operating system and a bunch of neat software toys. NeXT engineers (now Apple engineers) have already begun putting together the new Mac OS, code-named “Rhapsody.” Not only will Rhapsody offer all the neat features that tech-heads like me want, but, perhaps more important to the common consumer and unlike the current system software, Rhapsody will be fully optimized for PowerPC. This will roughly double the speed of Mac computers using PowerPC chips. On that count alone, the Wintel platform is in trouble, because up until now the PowerPC has been fighting with one hand tied to its foot and has been forced to hop up and down and slap at the Pentium with its free hand when it gets the chance. Remarkably, the PowerPCs been winning even under these handicaps. The Pentium has 15 months to prepare its will before the full version of Rhapsody ships.
Macintosh: A Dead Machine?
Here’s a tidbit that’s not getting picked up in the general press: While Apple sales are dropping somewhat, Mac clone vendor sales are skyrocketing. Power Computing, for one, just sold more computers in their first year than Gateway, Dell and Compaq did in their first year combined. Most Mac clone vendors can’t make machines fast enough, and even Apple is heavily back-ordered on their PowerBook laptop computers. Truth is, Mac OS salesâ€”meaning computers from Apple plus the Mac clone makersâ€”are actually increasing.
[Update of 2/6/98: Even without the Mac cloners, Apple is shipping hundreds of thousands of machines. The world-wide installed base of Macs currently in use is over 21 million.]
Here’s another tidbit: Macintosh continues to be the number computer for home, education, web site authoring, multimedia, audio production and desktop publishing. It leads in other categories as well, but that’s all I can remember off the top of my head.
Now for those you who’ve tried to follow along and really wish I’d get to the point, the point is this: By about this time next year, Macintosh systems will be running approximately twice as fast as anything Intel is able to put on the market, and these Mac machines will be priced as inexpensively as their vastly inferior Wintel counterparts.
And that, friends, is a renaissance.