Apple’s Power Failure

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PowerPC vs x86, Reality vs Myth

From the very beginning, Apple Computer often employed a certain degree of brashness and hyperbole in its advertising campaigns, a trait which continues today. One infamous Apple print ad from the early days of the Power Mac, which I attempted to reproduce in Figure 1, must have been particularly galling to Intel engineering management and design teams.

Figure 1. Myth Often Superseded Facts in Apple Ads

It showed two performance versus time curves. One was marked “RISC” and it zoomed upwards in a classic exponential curve while the other was marked “CISC” gently leveled out towards some imaginary asymptotic value. Any serious student of computer architecture and Moore’s Law would immediately dismiss it as empty propaganda since advances in semiconductor technology was a tide that raised all boats exponentially, RISC and CISC alike. If anything, history has shown that the advantage of RISC based processor design has been gradually reduced for integer performance by the combined effects of microprocessor design transistor budgets in the millions, the growing memory bottleneck, and advances in CISC implementation techniques.

One maxim that coaches and players of professional sports teams follow is to not publicly show disrespect for their next opponent out of fear the they can use it to increase their own motivation and gain a competitive edge. In a way Apple fell into this trap with this well publicized nose tweaking of Intel. It is easy to imagine P6 project managers capitalizing on it by posting photocopies of Apple ads like Figure 1 at every drinking fountain, bulletin board, and coffee station in Intel’s Hillsboro facilities to lend a sense of urgency to the team’s efforts. Within a year and a half the Intel Pentium Pro was announced and any hope of PowerPC had of staying significantly ahead of x86 performance were quickly dashed.

IBM and Motorola certainly saw the writing on the wall and subsequent high end PowerPC efforts concentrated on modest derivatives of the simpler 603 core such as the G3 (PPC750) and G4 (PPC7400). These devices were improvements to the line but not so aggressive as to entirely abandon the protected habitat of the embedded control processor market. Even more design resources were dedicated towards developing PowerPC variants like the IBM 4xx series and the Motorola PowerQUICC, targeted to embedded control and telecom applications and completely irrelevant to Apple’s desktop computing needs.

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