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What the Muses Deign: Will there be or won't there?

By Porruka (porruka@macedition.com) June 20, 2003

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The guessing games are on as we fly headlong into WWDC 2003. Will there be a new Apple-branded camera? Will Monica narrate “Living History”? And maybe, just maybe, will we finally see confirmation of Apple’s use of IBM’s PPC 970 chips?

Where’s the beef?

WWDC is, first and foremost, a developer conference. As such, one might actually expect announcements to be made there before anywhere else, since developers are critical to any major change in the platform. Maybe it’s because Apple hasn’t had such a dramatic change in recent years that WWDC has been fairly uneventful from Apple announcement standards.

This year, though, there is high expectation. The announced reason, showing off Panther (the next major revision of the Mac OS), is a big deal in and of itself. What’s driving the buzz, though, is what’s left unsaid. If all there was to Panther was a few new user features, Apple wouldn’t need to dedicate such a large venue to showing it off. Over the years, Apple has gotten a collective earful about WWDC being more of a marketing event than a technical event (and reduced attendance reflected the feedback at the time). So, for the company to hype the new OS version, one would hope there’s more to it than a few UI tweaks and some new user features. Enter the PPC 970.

Goodbye, Moto

While it’s unlikely that Motorola would be nixed from supplying chips for any of the next-generation Macs, all the signs point to Big Blue (IBM) laying the foundation for real change in the design of Power Macs. From the expected PPC970/PPC980 (and extended) family of processors to the improvements in the motherboards these processors are expected to enable (cache, bus speeds, memory), there is a great deal of anticipation in the Mac community. The logjam on processor and machine performance (which briefly even went backwards on the introduction of the Sawtooth machines) may finally be broken.

64-bit, HyperTransport, anti-gravity

Well, maybe the anti-gravity option won’t come for a bit longer, but the PPC970, from IBM's Power4 family of screaming silicon, could be just what Apple customers have been looking for. A true 64-bit architecture that can run 32-bit PPC code with limited (if any) penalties, the 970 gives Apple plenty of room to run for quite a while. Even ignoring the 64-bit-ness (which most people should, at first), the remaining upgrades to the system should give a welcome boost, both to performance and to the Power Mac upgrade cycle, which has been sorely lacking of late.

Combine new hardware with new Quark XPress (coincidental timing at this point? I think not) and what is likely to be new enclosures, and you have a potent mix.

When can I have one?

This really is the 64-bit question. It would be a very nice surprise for Apple to confirm the hardware direction at this WWDC. It has discussed hardware direction of this level in the past, such as with AltiVec/Velocity Engine. Given that Apple is broadcasting the developer keynote via satellite, there must be something of note there. Perhaps the OS is all there is to it, but that doesn’t seem likely.

When/if Apple does confirm the hardware direction, reasoned speculation would put developer machines at the conference running on the new chips. Play with it, be awed by the performance, Apple will likely say. Will that be enough?

There’s always the possibility that the company will go further. There are rumor reports that palettes of kit have shown up at various stores marked “Do not open until June 23.” Assuming the reports are true (for the sake of argument), what could these be? They won’t be Panther – it’s not ready yet. Could they be 970-based machines? The much-discussed possible 15” TiBook replacement? Both? Both in one machine? It would be wholly out of character for Apple to have machines ready to ship on the day of announcement. However, Apple’s working with a new partner now, IBM, a company that typically hits its schedules (or exceeds them) and doesn’t find itself in the same dramatic position as its AIM partner Motorola (IBM's current Linux/AIX/SCO kerfluffle notwithstanding).

Speaking personally, if there’s a PPC970-based Power Mac for sale at WWDC, my bank account will take a pretty good sized hit. I suspect there are many, many folks out there in a similar position (considering the lack of Power Mac unit sales). Can Apple pull it off? It's possible and would be a pleasant surprise.

Desktops? PowerBooks? Both?

Would Apple really blow the crowd out of the water by shipping 970-based PowerBooks right out of the gate? It seems that it would be an unexpected but powerful addition to the “Year of the Laptop”. It would also demonstrate Apple’s committment to the new chip platform. Bang for the buck? Plenty there if the company chooses to use it. Now, it could still be the much-expected revision of the 15” PowerBook without using the PPC970 processor. Would that make sense? It’s the more likely scenario, the more conservative story that would fit with the way Apple’s previously managed rollouts. Still, there are enough hints lying around that a really new PowerBook may be on the way.

Power Macs? There’s no question, if anything with the PPC970 will be announced, it will be the towers (or whatever the towers morph into). With pro Power Mac sales slumping horribly, the company won’t wait any longer than it absolutely has to before getting updated machines into the channel.

Tablets, cameras and iChat, oh my!

There are plenty of other rumors swirling, as is standard procedure right before a major Apple event. It's possible that Apple will announce other things like a camera or such, but the developer’s conference really isn’t the place for it, unless they tie to an important developer technology. Likelihood is low for gadgets, as they will interfere with the Panther message that Apple is spending large sums of money to promote.

MacEdition WWDC coverage and shameless promotion

If you’re going to be at WWDC this week, feel free to drop us a line at editorial@macedition.com. Some folks associated with MacEdition will be there, learning everything there is to learn. Friends of MacEdition will be there too, such as BOLTS author and Big Nerd Ranch-hand Mark Dalrymple. Go ask him about his new book. As coverage comes along, we’ll be sharing with our friends at Faq-Mac too, if you have a Spanish jones. Finally, if you want to help out with the coverage, feel free to write up a paragraph or two on something you see, hear, taste, feel or smell that's interesting and send it to editorial@macedition.com with a subject of “wwdc_blurb_sub”. Be sure to let us know if we should use your name or not.

Let the games begin!

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