Apple’s Power Failure

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Does The Performance Gap Really Matter?

The immediate question that should be posed is whether or not this performance gap will affect the viability of the Macintosh as a desktop computing standard. The answer is, probably not. The current performance bonanza in the x86 world is far more driven by the egos and cutthroat competitive nature of Intel and AMD than any perceived need by computer buyers. Although the bleeding edge CAD and gaming enthusiast markets will embrace any level of performance with open arms, the fact is that majority of computer uses can be happily serviced by x86 processors in the 600 MHz range. The key for Apple is the tall task of convincing the great, unwashed masses of computer buyers to not automatically worship at the altar of clock frequency.

Apple will likely need to continue to concentrate on marketing their wares on the basis of industrial design aesthetics and intangible factors such as design “coolness”, while shying away from quantifiable characteristics like clock rate, bandwidth and performance (or price). A key competitive advantage of PowerPC is its relatively low power consumption, which stands in sharp contrast to the leading x86 designs that can dissipate up to a blistering 65 Watts. Apple must ruthlessly exploit this advantage to create unique form factors employing passive cooling techniques for desktop computers that are simultaneously appealing, compact, quiet, and difficult for x86 system manufacturers to duplicate (aside from look-and-feel lawsuits). The combination of unique form, a stubbornly loyal user base, and the simple fact that PowerPC may lag x86 performance but is still sufficient for the vast majority of applications, should allow Apple to keep most of its tiny market share intact over the next few turbulent years. However, Apple should drop silly and misleading ads campaigns like the G4-as-supercomputer or Pentium-as-snail, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, the less attention Apple draws to performance comparisons the better.


After five years of keeping PowerPC performance more or less in lockstep with x86, IBM and Motorola’s recent play-it-safe strategy of not straying too far from the design parameters of the high-end embedded control market has backfired. The intense struggle between Intel and AMD for technical supremacy in the x86 market has pushed their processors up into the territory of workstation class RISC processors in terms of sophistication, design aggressiveness, and performance. The lack of urgency on the part of IBM and Motorola has caused the PowerPC to fall significantly behind the top of the line MPUs from Intel and AMD.

The nearly effective lack of applications that require GHz level processors has meant that the damage to the competitiveness of PowerPC and Apple’s Power Mac line may be more of a perception than reality. It is up to Apple Computer, a company that is often more successful managing perception than reality, to overcome the burden of a large and widening performance gap by continuing to concentrate on difficult to quantify but desirable aspects of its products, such as system level packaging aesthetics, low noise and heat output, and freedom from Windows. The key to continued viability is retention of the bulk of the Mac user base while attracting the newcomers to computing who are more repelled by beige boxes than attracted by stratospheric clock rates.

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