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Shifts in the PowerPC World?

The future of the PowerPC chips has recently lain in quiet, murky waters between IBM and Motorola, the chips’ manufacturers. A little over a year ago, the companies disagreed over the forthcoming PowerPC G4 processors – specifically, whether to include the AltiVec vector processing unit – and parted ways, with Motorola keeping AltiVec and taking over the primary PowerPC design facility, and IBM focussing on developing PowerPC chips for use in embedded systems and its server products. Two developments in recent weeks have made the PowerPC’s waters more turbulent, but no clearer: IBM plans to release free motherboard designs for PowerPC-based computers, and Motorola announced plans to buy Metrowerks, the leading maker of development tools for the Mac OS and PowerPC processors.

On Board with IBM — At this month’s LinuxWorld conference in San Jose, IBM engineers announced that manufacturers could freely build computers using an IBM motherboard design based on the PowerPC 750 processor (known in the Macintosh world as the PowerPC G3). The design derives from the now-defunct Common Hardware Reference Platform (CHRP) specification, requires no novel parts, and has no proprietary or legal barriers to immediate production. IBM apparently does not intend to build products based on the design, but other manufacturers could use it as-is, or add additional options. The idea is that other computer manufacturers could produce PowerPC-based systems running Linux, which would offer significant performance gains over other Linux systems (especially in floating point operations, often used in rendering and graphics processing). A strong market for PowerPC-based Linux systems would, in turn, allow IBM to sell more PowerPC chips.

It’s too early to say what impact PowerPC systems running Linux might have on the Macintosh world, or whether Apple would allow the Mac OS or the Unix-based Mac OS X to run on third-party hardware. (It seems unlikely, given Apple’s negative stance toward Macintosh clones since Steve Jobs’s return.) In any case, the availability of inexpensive, high-performance PowerPC Linux systems should boost the profile of the PowerPC, which could indirectly be good for Apple. It’s unlikely Apple would lose many Macintosh customers to PowerPC Linux boxes: comparatively few people buy new Macs explicitly to run Linux. More interesting is the possibility that Darwin, Apple’s open source initiative surrounding the foundation layers of Mac OS X, could be modified by the open source community to run on these PowerPC-based machines.


Motorola Buying Metrowerks — Motorola recently announced that its Semiconductor Products Sector plans to buy Metrowerks for approximately $95 million in cash, pending shareholder and regulatory approval. Metrowerks develops the CodeWarrior product line of programming tools; CodeWarrior is the leading development environment for the Mac OS, but versions are also available for various flavors of Linux, Microsoft Windows, Solaris, Java, Palm devices, game consoles, and more. According to Motorola, Metrowerks products and technology will help form the software backbone of Motorola’s DigitalDNA initiative for embedded systems, ranging from cell phones and digital television to communications and automotive systems.


However, Metrowerks will be operated as a stand-alone subsidiary with its current management, so CodeWarrior products for desktop operating systems (including the Mac OS) will probably continue to be developed and enhanced. Motorola’s move may have complex implications for Apple, since Motorola will both supply PowerPC CPU chips used in Macintosh products and own the most widely used software development environment for the Macintosh.

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