Sunday, June 12, 2005

Apple's ISA Shift

The most extraordinary news last week was the announcement that Apple would drop the Power chip and adopt the Intel chip and Instruction Set Architecture (ISA). There was a lot of speculation and disbelief before the event, the announcement in its own reality distortion field, and generally positive or at least understanding reportage afterwards.

First I should disclose a couple of personal connections with this event. The first one involves my mother-in-law (God bless her soul). Many years ago she wanted to buy a computer and hearing that Mac's were easier to use, bought one of the last 68000 based systems that Apple made. A couple of years later she got fed up with it because cruising the web had become impossible. Most complicated web pages took a very long time to render and many caused her system to crash. Of course there were no software upgrades to help her, so she went out and bought a PC which worked well for several years. This last January it broke down and she asked me for advice on getting it replaced. I suggested buying the Mac Mini that had just appeared and she bought one. Now I hear that it is obsolete, so is she going to be in the same position as she was with her last Mac? And this time its all my fault!

The second disclosure is that I worked for DEC, and was tangentially involved in their disastrous dithering with ISAs. Firstly they decided that the VAX ISA had no horsepower left so they adopted the MIPS chip for a short time and then completely changed tack to use their own internally developed Alpha chip and ISA. Old DEC hands may have thought that as they already had 12, 16, 18, 32 and 36 bit systems that throwing a couple more ISAs to the masses was business as usual. In practice customers took it as a sign that the company did not know what it was doing. DEC had always been deliberately run at the edge of control and when the customers deserted, DEC crumbled.

Back to the story. The most interesting commentary came from Cringely. I do not believe his major thesis, that this in an opening move in a merger between Intel and Apple. I do think that he is right on the money with his "Question 4: Why announce this chip swap a year before it will even begin for customers?" Who is going to buy a Mac now, knowing that it will be obsolete when Apple changes their ISA next year? Apple has basically destroyed the market for their major product for the next year.

There are a couple of possible reasons for making the announcement now. Firstly Apple may have decided that it was not going to keep it a secret and so the announcement was inevitable and put the best possible spin on a difficult situation. Alternatively, it could be hubris. Jobs has a history of being very successful and then getting caught up in his own reality distortion field to the extent that he blows it big time. His last big failure was Next which was colossal. This could be his next, we will see.

One other vector is Intel. Cringely is on the money in that they have a big stake in this. Microsoft just announced their xBox 360, which uses an IBM chip. If the xBox 360 turns out to be the home media center in disguise, Intel has potentially lost the consumer part of their franchise. In this context a link up with Apple who also have their eye on the home media center makes perfect sense.

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