back to article Only insanity would lead Apple to make a mobile chip play

So, here's the deal. If Steve Jobs can actually turn the acquisition of chip start-up PA Semi into a fruitful mobile endeavor, then he's an even more fantastic genius than the world has guessed to date. Because this deal seems to make almost no sense at first blush if you swallow the souped-up iPhone line. The conventional …


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  1. Rick Leeming

    Back to PowerPC?

    Just out of curiosity, would this be a possible ploy for Apple to return to the PowerPC chips as a base for some of their machines? They still code for the PowerPC chips in 10.5 yes? Is the Intel deal for a set period of time?

    Greater minds than mine will no doubt have a better idea, but I know I wouldn't be surprised to be fair. As long as the OS doesn't look any different to the end-user then they won't have massive problems. Most Mac users i know don't boot windows, or in fact use Parallels, they just boot into OSX and do all their stuff. Outside of the tech-savvy it seems there is a lot of ignorance that you even can run windows if you really do need to.

    Tux, because he need some loving too.

  2. Nexox Enigma

    PPC Return

    Everthing in Leopard and forward is supposed to be Universal Binary, which is to say that its got 4 copies of everything - x86, x86x64, PPC, anc PPCx64. It seems like it'd be pretty easy to make laptops and such out of these PA cpus - then maybe we'd see some actual performance instead of this Intel crap. And maybe we'd see some hardware that wasn't internally the exact same as every HP and Dell out there on the market.

    It'd be nice to have cheapish PPC workstations on the market, though I don't really like the idea of paying for OSX when I'd just have to format that off as soon as I opened the kit.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Halo

    Back to PowerPC? - only if they are stupid

    A seriously stupid idea to take Macs back to PowerPC if that is their intention.

    I have a G5 iMac, it is hot, noisy and not particularly fast. I also have an Intel iMac with the same case design and it's none of those.

    PA Semi have been spinning their 2Ghz wonder chip for the past three years but where is it in real life usage?

    XBox 360 use a variant of the PowerPC and look where that has got Microsoft.

    Please Steve Jobs, we want our hot, noisy G5's back, especially the 3GHz vapour ware model.

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  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pretty poorly thought out, and rushed piece

    "Apple is not an innards expert, so the idea of it getting into the microprocessor business simply to "gain a competitive design edge" is ludicrous"

    Apple designed their own mobos for a long time until the switch to Intel. They've got a lot of specialism in the innards department. Plus, it's not like PA Semi are a fab, they're a chip designers, with some of the top brains in the industry. Hardly a startup per se...

  6. MD Rackham

    Legal Settlement?

    One theory I've not seen elsewhere is that there was some legal fallout from the way PA Semi was led on while Steve cut a deal with Intel.

    Could this really be a settlement of those issues?

    I have nothing to back this up, other than it seems to make more sense than the other theories being floated.

  7. Eric

    why not two lines?

    A PPC line of computers and an Intel line. You know how many Apple freaks would buy both. Lots. I thought they shoulda done this back when they made 'the switch'

    had IBM not flubbed the G5. Shoot, Freescale isn't doing so bad with our old friend the G4. Perhaps the netherly talents at PA Semi has some unveiled PPC base design out around 5Ghz lurking...IBM's POWER 6 is up there, 5Ghz and a selling chip. That would be an intel/windows killer of epic irony. Return of the Almighty PowerMac G5 at 5Ghz...Apple nuts weeping in the streets, lost in thrall..Jobs had Intel commissioned to waste a lot of time/talent on that useless Macbook Air in order just to tie up their resources while he secretly steered this other guy at PC Semi into delivering this monster...the sales chart soars as the world tips on it's axis...people throwing Wintel computers out of skyscrapers as their new $1200 5Ghz G5 'Almighty' models arrive...OS 11 runs Windows applications natively without an emulator...the death of Windows...Microsoft founders in a swarm of bitter salt-in-the-wound lawsuits as users frustrated after 20 years of insane obsfucation simply have enough and descend in hordes on coverage of thousands swarming over the landscape towards the office park...smashing out windows, tipping over filing cabinets..the original Windows OS Master DVD vaults are found and wrenched open, eerie calm as the first gold Master DVD is raised above the crowd and snapped in two..wild gleeful insane pandemonium resumes, offices ransacked....gates goes broke, picture taken of him applying for food stamps. Teased by the homeless: 'well well well....'

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  9. Ashlee Vance (Written by Reg staff)

    Re: 13W 2 x 2GHz 64bit PPC = not hot and noisy

    Well, yes, you're right about Mercury. I've written about them a fair bit, but they certainly do sell servers, which was the relevant bit for this story. Back to my booze.

  10. Daniel B.


    Interesting, only one person has dissed the PowerPC option so far. Even more curious is the fact that most comments on this acquisition suggest or are in favor of Mac switching back to PPC!

    Really, it was a sad day when Apple announced 'the switch'. It was basically the reason I finally decided *not* to switch back to Mac. Now they're nothing more than overpriced PCs with a snazzy cover. Jobs, you betrayed us! :(

    I hope this is a turn in the right direction, Apple might be just the company to pull the PC market out of the x86 architecture! Now if only SGI returned to MIPS, and Sun resumed selling SPARCStations...

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Gates Halo

    Bootcamp / Virtualisation

    I'm sure the Mac platform could switch back to PPC without too much drama as indeed Leopard and most apps are Universal (however their are an increasing number of Intel only apps - e.g iPhone SDK and EA games)

    I also think most purchasers don't care who manufactured the processor in their computer - as long as it feels "zippy".

    However a big caveat. that in my mind suggests an Intel to PPC switch is unlikely, is the marketing value of being able to run Windows natively in Bootcamp or through virtualisation.

    This allows people to make the PC to Mac switch without feeling like they're burning their bridges, and they can still use all that PC software they have.

    I say its a marketing benefit, because the people I know who have switched partly for this reason have in fact ended up rarely or never firing up Bootcamp.

    But it is nice to know that you can!

  12. Patrick

    Only Blinders Would Make A Write Say That

    So rushed, so full of that which makes flowers grow tall and green!

    Apple is *not* interested in the company's products.

    Apple is *not* interested in the company's customers.

    Apple is interested in the IP and the engineering-talent of the company's employees.

    Apple is going to have an interesting ride trying to acquire, because one of the larger customers is the US Department of Defense :-)

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Let's look at the big picture

    P.A. Semi's expertise is extending the PPC architecture just as Altera has done with the MIPS64 architecture from SGI into the world of FPGA's (Field Programable Gate Arrays). These are lower cost versions of DSP's (Digital Signal Processors) and ASIC's (Application Specific Integrated Circuits). These guys are specifically tuned chips that unlike their general use brethren such as the Intel Pentium, do a few things very well and very fast at low cost and low power. Scientific visualization, networking and storage controllers, signal processing for audio, are all examples in which these chips excel way beyond their general use counterparts. You could say they are super smart versions of the old math co-processors in the old 286 and 386 days.

    Now...consider this. Intel has recently announced that they are opening up the frontside bus to outside chip vendors. In other words, you could buy an Intel board one day and not only find an Intel Core2Duo plugged into a slot but also a P.A. Semi chip plugged in as well. Now consider a MacPro Tower with not only an eight core Intel cpu but a multicore P.A. Semi chip. Can you say "21st Century SGI" for the Pixar crowd. How about an uber-Xserve with not only an eight core Intel but a 16 core P.A. Semi chip. Now you have a very compelling solution for high end visualization, cryptography and the like.

    But let's go further. FPGA's also give you machine vision and speech recognition the likes of which you can't get with just SSE 3 instructions from Intel. Once you plug a P.A. Semi chip into the Intel board, you could have another patented Apple leap in computer/user interaction. After all, as good as the Mac OSX interface is compared to Windows or Linux it is still based on the Icon/Mouse paradigm. Now combined Apple's expertise in Human User Interfaces, built in cameras on their iMacs and coming on their monitors, and a P.A. Semi chip for machine vision and speech recognition and you have the making of something approaching HAL from 2001 A Space Odessey.

    And as a final note, Apple could be preparing to be the CPU supplier to Nintendo for their replacement of the Wii. After all, Nintendo makes more money per console than Microsoft or Sony because they stuck with essentially a speed-bumped version of the same PPC chip that was in their GameCube console. That also gave them automatic backward compatibility with GameCube games which gave GameCube owners a compelling reason to upgrade to the Wii. Not to mention that Nintendo took a couple of pages from the Apple playbook of human interaction guidelines and design. All this has made the Wii the monster that it is. Now fast forward a few years. Nintendo needs to move on to the next generation. They have a winning design philosophy. They have a winning profit philosophy from a hardware standpoint. And they want developers who have a knowledge base with the PPC architecture from the GameCube days all the way through the Wii days to have an easy development road for the future.

    And Apple says would you like 20 million chips....perhaps 50 million? We're happy to serve!

  14. Torben Mogensen

    Hardware lock-in

    Apple has been a bit miffed about people installing MacOS on non-Apple hardware, but they may not be able to legally prevent this from happening. A move back to PPC may be a way for Apple to force people who want to run MacOS to buy Apple hardware -- since PPC hardware is not very common, unless you count games consoles that for other reasons (such as lack of a laptop form factor) might not be suitable for MacOS.

  15. Urs Keller

    Apple is already in the embedded systems market

    Apple TV and Time Capsule are effectively embedded systems, for which the business logic of PCs do not apply (e.g. no need to be open to third party software). And sure you want to make them run cool, if only to save a fan. So yes, even to use the PA Semi processors could be an option.

    But speculating a bit more, why would Jobs "buy" processor experts? Could it be to help Intel make a processor better suited to OS X, or to design a coprocessor that differentiates the Mac sufficiently to make it outrun Windows computers?

  16. Frank Bough

    Back to PowerPC? - I'd be quite happy.

    The fact is, my newly acquired 8-core MacPro struggles in some metrics compared to my G5 Quad despite it's supposed on-paper advantages. It's also brought with it a level of crashiness never experienced with OSX using PowerPC machines ever since the public beta. The market as a whole might love MacTels, but I'm not impressed so far. Anyway, remember what the Steve always says about having options...

    As for you, Ashlee, try and remember that journos, unlike suits, don't have to put their money where their mouths are - and maybe they know QUITE A BIT more about their business than you do. Just maybe?

  17. sleepy

    Silly article, sensible comments

    Did anyone notice that just as Apple killed PA Semi negotiations and signed up with Intel, Intel sold off XScale to Marvell. Perhaps that move and this are pieces of an Intel plan to finally succeed in diversifying from x86 with a volume & margin. Apple is probably now in a position to allow Intel to manufacture PPC for sale, or at least to fab PPC based chips for Apple. Intel has the fabs, and they aren't cheap.

    Intel have tried repeatedly over the years to diversify from x86, but Mr Market always says NO. Buying PA Semi wouldn't work. Apple can create a market for a component maker. (USB? WiFi? 3.5" floppy? PPC?) Not even Microsoft has managed that.

    We're approaching the end of the PC era, and the competition have Intel defeated in every other market. ARM is strong at the low end, but PPC could do it all. Sit back and watch the show unfold over the next 5 years.

  18. Joe

    @ Urs Keller

    Or, perhaps a co-processor that OS X requires, making it impossible to run OS X on a non-Apple machine?

  19. stizzleswick

    There is no way back to PPC Macs

    -- that would be a complete marketing nightmare, and Apple is highly unlikely to do that on the consumer and workstation fronts.

    But most posters so far seem to have overlooked that Apple has a line of servers on offer, and there is a high demand in the server market for low-energy, high-performance chips like the PPC. Compare IBM's product portfolio development.

    Also, there have been rumours that Apple wants to make a bid in the big iron league in the long run. In this perspective, acquiring a PPC chip design outfit would sort of make sense.

  20. Jay
    Jobs Horns

    Gun meet foot?

    At this point in time I'm very seriously considering making the switch from PC to Mac (can't be doing with Vista). So not only would I get the Apple good stuff, but the ability to use Bootcamp or virtualisation makes the transition easier, and also smooths over the fact that many hardware/software eggs are going into the Apple basket.

    So the fact that Apple may consider going back to PPC does make me think twice about switching. I'm sure that lots of other people quite like the ability to run other OS on their Macs too.

  21. A J Stiles

    Universal Binaries? Pah!

    There's a certain operating system whose applications run on at least x86, x86_64, PPC, PPC_64, ARM, Sparc, Sparc_64, MIPS, IBM S390, 680x0, Alpha and VAX. And they manage to do all that without having to cram a dozen different binaries into one file .....

  22. D Lobb

    Super Green Mac?

    I wonder what the market would be for a Super Green MAC? With a 2.0 GHz CPU that draws only 5-13 Watts, you would have a heck of a marketing platform. With the green craze sweeping the planet, I suspect that many would buy it.

    Hmmmm, come to think of it, an Apple laptop (standard, not Air) would have a much longer battery life with such a small power draw... More fuel for the marketing fire...

  23. D Lobb

    Re: Universal Binaries? Pah!

    What a ridiculous comment. That only works so long as you have the source code to recompile for the binaries you need. Thousands of software vendors, who are trying to make a living off of their code, will never release their source code.

    So, there's another universal solution down the tubes. No better or worse than Universal Binaries.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Halo

    Cheap settlement

    My guess is that PA Semi had a lawsuite brewing against Apple, over the Intel transition. So instead of going to court, Apple buys the entire company.

  25. Carniphage

    Apple does not want the chips....

    ... it's after the patents.

    Buying the company is cheaper than being sued and paying lawyers.


  26. Giles Jones Gold badge

    Did you all miss the bit about "mobile" devices?

    Nowhere does it hint that Apple would move their desktop machines back to PPC.

    This is for their embedded market, ie. iPhone and iPod, plus any other devices they decide to make.

  27. Daniel B.

    Re: There is no way back to PPC Macs

    "-- that would be a complete marketing nightmare, and Apple is highly unlikely to do that on the consumer and workstation fronts."

    Oh really? Like Jobs doing presentations on how the G4 0wns the Pentium processor because its a better arch, and then saying some time after that "Intel is the way!" Yeah, right.

    They might actually solve the bootcamp trouble by patching in a "daughter board" with the x86 basics. This was already possible 15 years ago with OrangePC. These days, that option might be actually cost-effective now.

  28. Niall


    I was thinking the exact same thing. You get your low energy boxen, and not only are they cool because they produce shit all heat, they're cool because they're Apple. That said, for them to be taken up in any vast quantities, Apple will have to disregard their "pay for the label" pricing scheme.

    There were some other interesting points made in some of the other comments too. It will be interesting to see what this eventually turns out to be...

  29. Geoff

    Storage play?

    These chips are used in NEC's storage line. At the moment Apple produces the XServe RAID, which is a low end storage system, what if Apple is looking to produce a Midsize / Enterprise level storage system based on OSX? If they could build something easier to run than a NetApp, then it would sell like hot cakes, practically zero training requirements, simple setup and management, ZFS filesystem to do snapshots and point in time restorations, time machine interface to do restorations. I think these could well end up in an Apple branded NAS device, if not a NAS/SAN hybrid device.

    There is definately a market for storage at the moment and it's one of the few places where other manufacturers have an entry into media organisations where Apple has a traditional customer base. These devices are also high margin, which fits with apples sales philosophy.

  30. Paul

    arm variant

    whilst I think "sleepy's" comments are good, that Apple could license a variant of PPC to Intel, I think it's more likely that Apple want to own their own Arm variant processor instead of buying 3rd part versions, and who better to craft one that a low-power specialist?

    now, if I was being really cynical, I could suggest that Apple were going to roll a custom processor into iPhone so that noone outside Apple would have a working development platform, and therefore make the thing relatively unhackable; as it is, anyone with Arm SDK can have a go!

  31. stizzleswick

    @ several

    @ Daniel B.: '[..] then saying some time after that "Intel is the way!"' -- well, there were 8 years between the introduction of the G4 and the switch to Intel. Switching back to PPC within within 2 years after going through a huge amount of trouble to switch to Intel in the first place might look a little ludicrous. Whereas at the time it came out, the PPC 7500 (aka G4) actually beat Intel's chips lengthwise and broadside in performance per watt, throughput per cycle and actual just plain performance in practical applications like image or video editing.

    @ Geoff: Good point, which I had overlooked. That might really be an interesting thing to observe -- though AFAIK the current line of XServe RAIDs is not manufactured by Apple but rebranded OEM ware.

    @ Niall: Compared spec-for-spec, I find Apple not all that overpriced -- no, really. I guess it depends on where in their product life cycles you compare prices, but at least with the notebooks, they're not all that expensive if you compare same-spec machines from the likes of Dell, Acer, Toshiba, et al. (I last compared about half a year ago, then decided to install Linux on a MacBook Pro because it was about 250 quid less than what the others were offering me at the time in the same performance range).

    But that aside, I agree about the "cool" factor -- plus, since they already have the well-tested PPC version of MacOS X out there anyway... *shrug* how could they resist? And the bonus is that MacOS X scales pretty well with the number of cores involved (it's BSD on a Mach kernel after all), so they actually _could_ go for the big iron if they wanted to. They already have one PPC installation in the upper ranges of the top 500 supercomputer list after all.

    Disclaimer: I am not a fanboi of any hardware or software supplier. I don't drink Kool-Aid of any kind. But I can still be fascinated by developments...

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