It feels like 1997 all over again.
December 6, 2000 4:15 AM   Subscribe

It feels like 1997 all over again. I guess Uncle Steve's Reality Distortion Field has a limited radius after all. How's everyone's favorite fruit company going to pull out of this one? I don't think OS X is going to be the new iMac. (Although the Cube looks like it's on track to become the next 20th Anniversary Mac...)
posted by darukaru (23 comments total)
All *I* know right now is that if I were a Motorola executive, I'd be in fear of my life from Der Jobs' army of translucent Terminators...
posted by darukaru at 4:18 AM on December 6, 2000

Wow, it really does feel like 1997 all over again, now that the "The Apple is falling! The Apple is falling!" chickens have come scurrying out of the henhouse to litter up the tech rags (and MeFi) with their "We knew it would happen someday!" predictions of Doom for Jobs & Co... Too bad for you it wasn't really true then - and it's not true now.

Daru, do a little reading [paragraphs 9 & 10]. They are sitting on US$4 billion in cash.

Jobs said that while other PC makers might move into the New Year with high inventories, Apple is biting the bullet now and will try and clear inventories to normal levels so it can enter January "clean." Jobs reiterated the company has an "Arnold Schwarzenegger" balance sheet with over $4 billion in cash and "can weather this quarter."

By any reasonable measure, the rumors of Apple's imminent death would have to be not only greatly exaggerated but perhaps, more accurately, constructed out of something rapidly approaching sheer ignorance. "Apple's goin' down!" is about as tired a line as "Windoze blowz!" and several orders of magnitude less interesting.
posted by m.polo at 5:14 AM on December 6, 2000

Apple's long term problems are very real and are not shared by the other makers of desktop computers, because Apple is at the mercy of Motorola to finally deliver them a fast G4 -- and it's beginning to look like Motorola actually doesn't care much anymore. Moto's promises about faster G4's have been among the very worse vapor announcements in the industry.

Imminent death is extremely unlikely. Long term decline, on the other hand, is a very real danger. If Apple's computers continue to stagnate at about the speed they're at now (which has been the case for the last year and will continue for at least six more months, with the possibility of a very small increase in speed) then Apple will gain the reputation of a "once-great" company. And that is something you never want to have happen to your company.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:20 AM on December 6, 2000

Hey, I love my cube.
posted by DragonBoy at 7:21 AM on December 6, 2000

Apple already had the distinction of being a Once-Great company, and recently became a Great-Again company.

Jobs isn't a stupid man, nor is he a patient one. If Motorola continues to yoink Apple around Jobs will go somewhere else.

Apple's been a pretty sweet contract for Motorola, 'cept Jobs-o making Apple clones a No-no probably pissed off a lot of people at Motorola by instantaneously breaking a pretty decent line of profit from clone manufacturers. With cell phones and other handheld tech becomming so prominent though, I do think ultimately you're right, Steven, Motorola's got many other, better, lines of technology to go play with.

I think the Apple-Motorola deals are going to end reasonably soon. It'll be a pain in the ass to go somewhere else for processor tech, but hell, they're running a unix OS now. Porting it is bound to be a straightforward process.

It'd be nifty to see Apple hook up with Transmeta. Have OS XI on the G6 capable of emulating countless other OS/Chipset arrangements. Want to run that windows game natively? Okay, go ahead.

posted by cCranium at 7:35 AM on December 6, 2000

One thing I hate about apple is now they hype everything, be it the slightest thing. Ofcourse the mac-zealots aren't helping much. I have an Imac, paid 1600 for it, do I use it? no, I still have no idea why I bought the damn thing. Btw, Macos X is very, very, very slow on it. Something like trying to run winX say a 486/66?
posted by tiaka at 7:50 AM on December 6, 2000

That's really funny - I have an iMac sitting at home running OSX, and it completely dusts any of my other machines.

Not to say I use it all that much, but it IS fast. Perhaps there is another reason why your system is running slowly?
posted by annathea at 8:09 AM on December 6, 2000

Apple can't go anywhere else for their processors, because they can't change the PPC without a lot of effort. It's not that they can't port OSX -- that's the easy part. What about all the application software which is in native PPC code?

If Apple makes a clean break with the past and goes to a new architecture (say, the Alpha) then they'd have to implement a PPC emulator in Alpha code as part of the process, just as they had to implement a 68K emulator in PPC code, so as to maintain backward compatibility with extant PPC applications. The time delay and the expense involved would be nontrivial -- and the performance of the apps a serious concern. (The PPC was deliberately designed to make emulating the 68K easy. Such would not be the case with, for instance, the Alpha or the Athlon trying to emulate the PPC.)

And Apple can't go to IBM for PPCs because IBM PPCs don't have Altivec.

Transmeta is a different matter; there's no particular reason the Crusoe can't be programmed to think it's a PPC, just as it's being programmed to think it's a PIII now. The only problem is that so far the Crusoe isn't turning out to be very fast, and it's not clear that it's going to get substantially better any time soon. Crusoe's big win is low power, not high speed. In the X86 world, Crusoe is trying to compete for the laptop market (where power is important), not the desktop market (where speed is important).

Well, Apple can already get low power from Moto in the PPC. That's the problem. That's what Moto has been concentrating on: what's important for embedded users (low power) and not what's important to Apple (high speed).

Someone up there said "Apple's been a pretty sweet contract for Motorola", but from from what I've read in fact Motorola has lost a lot of money on its dealings with Apple (precisely because of the anti-cloning move, not to mention the killing off of that standard open PPC mobo architecture which Moto invested so much in), which may be why they now don't seem very enthusiastic about working on processors which would solve Apple's problems but be useless to their other PPC customers.

Moto's other PPC customers haven't screwed them over the way Apple has (as described in that article just referenced).

Which leaves Apple between a rock and a hard place: they're pretty much hooked on a single source for processors, and that single source doesn't really like them anymore.

Tell me: where's the 700 MHz G4? (Note carefully the date on that article.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:40 AM on December 6, 2000

Tell me: where's the 700 MHz G4?

I thought this thread was about Apple's failings, not Motorola's. Apple can't put chips into machines if Motorola can't produce the chips in the first place...
posted by m.polo at 9:39 AM on December 6, 2000

I don't know, your other machines much be awfully slow, I don't see having 3 windows open and then trying to resize the top one without getting mouse clipping from side to side, until I let go, in which case it usually resizes to double it's size. I did a clean install, format the hd, installed 9, installed the patch, then x. The only thing is the bottom bar, it's really pretty, but annoying, because you can never have a browser window open to any length.
posted by tiaka at 11:20 AM on December 6, 2000

Nope - my other machines have twice the processor power and memory of my iMac, and I can't see a speed difference between them. I'm surprised at the problem you're having, only because I've been so extremely pleased with OSX. Maybe it's a beta bug or something, whatever. As for the bar on the bottom - I believe that can be moved/removed. I'm on an NT system right now, otherwise I'd check.
posted by annathea at 11:26 AM on December 6, 2000

IBM can make fast (700 MHz and above) G3s right now. Short-term solution might be to do AltiVec emulation in software on such a machine, while IBM adapts one of its vector engines to the PPC architecture. Remember, IBM is no slouch itself at processor design, and in fact the PowerPC is based largely on their POWER architecture to begin with. Alternately, Apple throws some of that $4 billion in cash at Motorola to license the AltiVec technology and some more of it at IBM to get them to build AltiVec-enabled G4s. (The reason IBM doesn't make AltiVec chips now is because their customers in the embedded market don't demand it.)

On another topic, Mac OS X seems slow in a lot of respects because it doesn't support hardware graphics acceleration in the public beta. The release version should feel a lot snappier.
posted by kindall at 12:23 PM on December 6, 2000

I hope so.
posted by tiaka at 12:37 PM on December 6, 2000

Moto's problems are Apple's problems. You hit the nail on the head: Apple can't put a processor into a computer unless Moto delivers it, and Moto isn't delivering. As a result, Apple is falling behind (standing still while the PC market moves forward) and their computers are becoming increasingly outclassed: underpowered and too expensive.

That's not a problem Dell or Compaq or Micron have; Intel and AMD are beating each other up to produce faster, better, cheaper CPU's and the market is moving very fast.

So while it is true that some of the problems that Apple is suffering from right now are industry wide, a lot of them are uniquely Apple's due to being shackled to Motorola. Which means that things might get better for Compaq and Dell without getting better for Apple. In my opinion that's what's going to happen unless Moto finally delivers a state-of-the-art CPU.

Software emulation of Altivec on an IBM PPC is possible but really, really strange; the POINT of Altivec is to speed the software up by moving software operations into hardware. And IBM has no interest in implementing Altivec, or they would have done it long since. Apple already had that discussion with IBM years ago and IBM said "no".

IBM doesn't want Apple's business.

For Motorola (and potentially for IBM) Apple's business would really be a very small portion of their overall revenue; Apple just isn't all that important to either of them. Compare that to AMD, for whom CPUs and chipsets are their primary business, and you can see that AMD is going to care a lot more about what someone like Compaq thinks than IBM will care about what Apple thinks.

Apple is already trying desperation moves: they tried to propose to Motorola and IBM that the PPC architecture be opened up so that Apple could conceivably find some third party to start making PPCs for them. Moto and IBM took a dim view (after all, what's in it for them?) and it went nowhere.

What it really comes down to is that Jobs' promise to close the "megahertz gap" was an empty promise. He is at Moto's mercy, and that's all there is to it -- unless he does something radical like switch to the Athlon. That would be the height of irony. (I also think it would kill the company. But that's a different discussion.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:47 PM on December 6, 2000

Do megahertz actually mean much in this case?

I've read reviews of the P4 that indicate that the megahertz jump is mildly meaningless. You get some performance boost, but not the percentage you'd expect (ie, as opposed to ~33% from a 1MHz to a 1.3MHz, you end up with 12%) because of the way the processor handles it's instructions.

I also remember talking to various MacFiends who've always decried the MHz thing, since the PPC processes things different than the x86 line of chips.

And, as always, looking at the chips' performance as a whole, as opposed to just one of the numbers involved, is important.

Though even if the MHz number approaches irrelevancy, many of the problems you've detailed, Steven, make a whole lot of sense in other aspects of processor performance alos.
posted by cCranium at 1:44 PM on December 6, 2000

m.polo: I know Apple's not in imminent danger of death. I just wanted to get a jump on the news before someone else posted a 'HA HA APPLE IS SUCKS' thread. Heck, I own a beige G3 myself, and I'm planning on upgrading it so I can smoke the OS X crack with everyone else.

Me, I was thinking more along the lines of the 'As the Apple Turns' soap-opera theme, and this is more like a plot twist. ;) Not so much an 'Is this the end for our heroes?' as a 'How're they going to get out of this situation?'
posted by darukaru at 2:11 PM on December 6, 2000

Paul DeMone is a highly respected industry analyst and he answers your question far better than I could.

You'll hear the Apple faithful claim that the 500 Mhz G4 is actually faster than "the fastest Intel processor" -- indeed, Steve Jobs made that claim again just today. They used to say "1.5 times faster per MHz", and then it was "2 times faster" and I've heard "3 times faster" -- it's amazing how the G4 has improved over time without actually changing at all.

But it's a crock, and DeMone proves it with hard benchmarks. Read his article and see what he has to say about it. I might mention that it dates from May; things have gotten worse comparatively for Apple since then, not better, since Apple essentially hasn't changed at all and the x86 market continues to move forward.

You can't compare chips with different architectures MHz for MHz. You have to compare them with realistic benchmarks which are recompiled for each platform using platform-specific optimizations. That's what he's done, and using that he shows that the x86 has now firmly left the G4/500 in the dust.

Apple, on the other hand, cooked a few benchmarks by taking some extremely obscure code which had been hand-optimized for the G4 and compared that to the same program using generic compiled code on the x86 and got spectactular results out of it -- not surprisingly. However, they've proceeded to claim that this will be typical, and real tests do not bear that out.

But the changes in the x86 world are not confined to increasing the speed of the CPU, and that's why those stale benchmarks Apple refers to will soon be irrelevant. The X86 architecture is also changing the memory bus and switching to a new memory architecture, and that's far more important than simply speeding up the CPUs. However, the CPUs have to be designed to take advantage of the new memory, and the next generations from AMD and Intel are.

The reason a 30% boost in CPU speed only got you 15% in processing power is that the CPU is bandwidth-limited on the memory. But with the switch to PC2600 DDR-SDRAM and with chipsets capable of supporting it, CPU's up to 2GHz or even faster will no longer be memory limited, and that's where a lot of the upcoming improvements in the x86 world are coming from. At that point, the CPUs will be able to run at their full speed, and MHz will again be important.

By next year, DDR-SDRAM will be the standard in the x86 world. Via and Micron will both be delivering 200 MHz chipsets capable of supporting PC2600 memory early in 2001. Via will support both AMD and Intel; Micron will only support AMD. And the newest generation of processors (including the AMD Palamino) will support a 200 MHz FSB and be able to use PC2600 memory to full effect. Once you hook that up, the result will be electric.

But the chipset I've got my eye on is the Micron Scimitar. 200 Mhz with DDR support, supports *2* Palaminos SMP, and has 8 Mbytes of L3 cache built into it. All the pieces should come together by about next Summer. (For instance, Micron is already sampling PC2600 memory; volume shipments in Q1.)

And what's Apple going to have in hardware by then to compete? The best guess appears to be "About what they have now; maybe only marginally faster."

It won't fly. The x86's will be cheaper, far more powerful AND will have much more app software available. I don't think OSX (Apple's only real significant improvement which will appear next year) can surmount that from a marketing standpoint.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:20 PM on December 6, 2000

I don't know Steven, even if everyone knows the G4 architecture is slower and limited compared to x86, people are still willing to pay for beautiful design.

Look at Bang and Olufsen, they make killer phones that don't do a whole lot, but look cool. And they sell a bunch.

Perhaps Apple could refocus to the niche market of people that like design-y things and slick marketing. Well, more so than they do now.
posted by mathowie at 2:49 PM on December 6, 2000

All the debate about 'speed' is interesting [hah hah] and kinda irrelevant [no offense meant]. You're seeing the results of particular kinds of organisational mismanagement: particularly restructuring the education channel right when the education market is spending, which, if I may say so, was a very Apple thing to do.

Then there's the rather surreal advertising campaign that continues to be possibly the prettiest yet simultaneously least informative in the history of advertising. Then you have the incompetents [CompUSA etc.] 'selling' [being generous here] the machines.

Then there's the designs which are [in some cases] destined to become horribly dated real soon now.

And there's the thousands of people who aint' gonna buy another mac 'till they can get one with a shipping version of OS X on it [and key apps have been ported as well].

By which time we'll be seeing quad processor Macs. Which is still overkill for everyone who runs Office 2001.

And then you've got people like me who've taken the money they might have spent on a new machine and bought new scanners, colour printers and digital cameras. And a Rio. All computer accessories. None of which made Apple any money. Bet they still wish they were in the peripherals market...
posted by theparanoidandroid at 3:29 PM on December 6, 2000

Perhaps Apple could refocus to the niche market of people that like design-y things and slick marketing. Well, more so than they do now.

I think that they've already saturated that Bang and Olufsen market. To survive, they really need to be making inroads into the Sony market.

posted by lagado at 3:45 PM on December 6, 2000

That would be sad. Sony is a well-regarded and highly profitable company, but far too many of their products are crap. I've been burned enough by them that I'm never buying a Sony product again, if I can avoid it. I'd hate to have to do that with Apple.
posted by kindall at 7:49 PM on December 6, 2000

Sony is pretty reliable in my book. What types of Sony stuff are you talking about kindall?
posted by grank at 8:36 PM on December 7, 2000

Hmmm. Three Discmen. A VCR that couldn't reliably play EP tapes (it sped up and slowed down repeatedly -- of course, I discovered this after the warranty was up). A Dolby Pro Logic receiver in which one channel and then the other went flaky after about two years (at the end, it wouldn't make any sound at all until it had been warmed up for about 15 minutes). An in-dash car CD player that put out so little bass, I had it pulled out and replaced with a Pioneer two days after I got it. The dealer that had sold me on the Sony tried to tell me it was my speakers, but the Pioneer had no trouble rumbling the interior. The Sony was just crap.

Shoulda stopped after the three Discmen, I guess.

To my embarrassment, I bought an Aiwa receiver to replace the Sony one, then discovered Aiwa is owned by Sony. I was afraid I'd be forced to get a Sony TV when I recently decided to buy one, as their Wega line is amazing, but the week I went TV shopping, JVC released one with a Mitsubishi flat tube that's easily a match for it. Whew!
posted by kindall at 10:04 PM on December 7, 2000

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