Probably, the long-awaited moment, which I will talk about today, was in a sense inevitable. Over the years, there have been rumors that Apple will use the accumulated knowledge about ARM processor architecture and transfer it to desktop computers and laptops. At the recent Worldwide Developers Conference the iPhone maker made that statement . Of course, many were interested in further actions of Intel - the rejected partner, relations with which led to Apple's decision on vertical integration. But I'm more interested in following the fading of the platform that Intel defeated in order to get Apple's location, as well as seeing the parallels that gradually emerged between PowerPC and Intel. Today we’ll talk about a long list of processor manufacturers, which Apple has cooled, using the example of switching from PowerPC to Intel. If you disappoint Apple, you won't be too good.

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It took Apple a couple of decades to get comfortable with this concept. (Internet Archive)

Information about the first project of Apple’s own processor surfaced about 35 years ago

In many ways, Apple has long been attracted by the benefits of vertical integration, caused by weaknesses in third-party processors. This company in its very essence was a vertical integrator.

But many do not know how long ago there was an interest in creating their own CPUs, and also that this was an internal initiative of the company. Last year, a document appeared on the Internet Archive from which one can understand the ambitiousness of this project. Published in 1989 and published by an anonymous user allegedly associated with Apple, the specification is Scorpius Architectural Specification "explains the general concepts of multi-core processor architectures more than ten years before these technologies began to be actively used by PC users.

“Work began in the mid-80s and continued until the end of the decade,” writes the anonymous author who leaked this confidential document. “Today it is obvious to us that this project never saw the light of day. But it was attended by very clever techies, and judging by what I heard, the architecture was well developed. ”

Although the cover bears the name Scorpius, this project has long been known to Apple fans under a different name: Aquarius.

Here is his story: at a time when Steve Jobs was “expelled” from Apple, the company launched a research project to create a multi-core processor architecture. At the beginning of the project, this was a very theoretical field, and computer processors with several cores appeared on the PC only in the beginning of 2000.

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The illustration in the document explains the multi-core capabilities of the Aquarius/Scorpius processor.(Internet Archive)

As described in Low End Mac in 2006 , Project Aquarius was an attempt by the company, then managed by John Scully (in addition, leadership was strongly influenced by the head of Macintosh development department Jean-Louis Gasset), to return Macintosh technical power, which was weakening compared to the new processors developed based on the RISC chip (reduced instruction set computer). RISC processors, one example of which is the ARM chipset , aim to speed up the process by minimizing the number of instructions available.

The implementation proposed by Apple was high-tech, at first it enlisted the support of senior management, but, in fact, was doomed from the very beginning. It has become one of the many research “money black holes” that the company worked on in the late 1980s. The problem, according to Low End Mac author Tom Hornby, was this:

Apple was not a microchip manufacturer, and it lacked the resources to become one. She would have to hire employees familiar with microprocessor design, buy the equipment necessary for the project, and then produce the finished product (or hire a company like Fujitsu or Hitachi for this). Intel and Motorola companies spent billions of dollars a year on the design and manufacture of microprocessors. Apple felt good, but it did not have extra billions.

Even the launch of such a complex project cost millions of dollars spent on the purchase of the Cray supercomputer for $ 15 million approved by Gass, as well as on the salaries of dozens of employees. Vintage Mac Software Developer (and Gopher fan ) Cameron Keyser, who found the aforementioned document last winter , noticed that the chief engineer Sam Holland, who started this project, created something too high-level even for Apple itself.

“Holland’s complex specification was even more worrying for top management, because its implementation required solving various technical problems that would have seemed difficult even to large and experienced chip design companies of that time,” he explains.

The project, which was being developed until 1989, did not reach its implementation in silicon (which would still be financially unbearable for Apple), but led to the creation of a detailed technical document explaining the potential of the Scorpius architecture - a unique chipset that can perform many functions that are now considered natural. In addition to several cores and parallel execution, Aquarius also introduced another key concept that is quite popular in modern processors: integrated graphics, which Intel did not integrate into its chips before low-end Intel i810 chipset , released in the 1990s.

Of course, the project was unsuccessful, but in 2018 Gasse stated on his website Monday Note : later developments proved that the project was right in spirit:

Although the work on developing a quad-core processor did not lead to immediate results, the Aquarius project served as an example of Apple's desire to control the future of its equipment. This craving again showed itself, but this time it was successful when Jobs bought Palo Alto Semiconductor to develop a series of Ax microprocessors that controlled iPhones and iPads; Today, these microprocessors are widely recognized by the industry as the best in their category.

Gasset is right, of course: historically, Aquarius has become the forerunner of Apple’s modern processor development ambitions but it also indirectly became one of the reasons for the important processor change - the company switched from the Motorola 68000 series, which was then used in the Apple Macintosh, to PowerPC, which were widely used in the 1990s.


This year, IBM released hardware overview of its RISC System/6000 processor , which was the first processor to use the POWER instruction set architecture. This set of commands became the basis of PowerPC processor technology, which was jointly developed by Apple, IBM and Motorola in the AIM Alliance. The three companies organized this alliance to start in 1991, the development of computer technologies of a new generation . IBM and other companies even today produce processors based on this set of instructions, although Apple abandoned it 14 years ago. (This is not the only bet Apple made at the time on processors: the company also invested in ARM, which came in handy after a few decades .)

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Motorola PowerPC 750 300 MHz processor, better known as PowerPC G3. It is noteworthy that Apple sought to simplify the names of the PowerPC processors used by it, due to which the G3, G4 and G5 line appeared. ( Wikimedia Commons )

In many ways, thanks to the PowerPC chipset, the consumer market first became acquainted with our world of 64-bit multi-core processors.

If you take a step back and think about PowerPC at a higher level, it is worth noting that, theoretically, he should have given Apple exactly the control over the fate of its processors that she craved so much.

Apple itself was not strong enough to create the kind of CPU on the basis of which it hoped to produce its own computers, so it teamed up with two companies with experience in the manufacture of chips, shifting all the hard work to them.

PowerPC architecture has proven to be the most successful part of partnerships aimed at creating the future of computers in various forms, including hardware and software.

After the Mac was released in 1994, the PowerPC processor impressed Mac users very much because it became a very important upgrade over the 68000 line. Stuart Chifet, the technical journalist for public television, put it at the beginning of the episode Computer Chronicles :

Should I choose PowerPC? You will be answered with a confident “yes” by Star Graphics Prepress Studio in Foster City, California. Previously, they used powerful Quadra 950 computers at work, but the 950 took about a minute to display such complex graphics. Now they only need about 10 seconds. When working with 950, a watch was required to perform a function called trapping. Now it takes about 20 minutes. Why? Because they switched to PowerPC.

But even so, success did not become true. IBM and Motorola joined Apple in its project to create a new generation standard capable of making progress in the technology industry... but in the end, Apple remained the only large company that primarily uses PowerPC chips in their computers. Yes, in the mid-1990s, you could buy an IBM computer based on PowerPC ( here's an example ) but her personal computer business, which she later later sold to Lenovo, mainly used x86.

The 1995 InfoWorld article was The problem IBM faced with using the PowerPC architecture was diagnosed: “Building the necessary infrastructure requires scale to compete in price and support of third-party companies with Intel and Microsoft, and without such infrastructure, third-party companies are unlikely to support PowerPC,” authors Ed Scannell wrote. and Brooke Crothers. “However, IBM was building such an infrastructure very slowly.”

As a result of this, PowerPC never seriously competed on its own with Intel as a cross-platform CPU. (Nevertheless, it turned out to be much more successful in video games: during the seventh generation of console wars, all three main gaming platforms - Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3 used the POWER instruction set architecture in their processors, and a direct descendant of the original iMac processor was installed in Wii G3. Nintendo also used PowerPC in GameCube and Wii U.)

But over the years, Apple still actively took advantage of the access to this architecture, which was so advanced that at the time of the first release of the G4 processor due to export restrictions on computing power The US government classified it as a weapon .

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The four-chip IBM POWER4 module used in the servers. (image taken from IXBT Labs )

In 2001, a PowerPC-based chip was able to realize the multi-core design that Apple had dreamed of implementing a few years earlier in Project Aquarius. This chip, the IBM POWER4 microprocessor, became the first commercially available multi-core microprocessor , as well as one of the first processors to overcome the symbolic threshold of computing power of 1 gigahertz.

Two years after the release of this server chip, its single-core version, called G5, is installed on the Mac. It was the company's first 64-bit processor, while Intel x86 processors were only 32-bit chips. However, despite its power, difficulties with architecture and production led to the abandonment of its use by the company, thanks to the needs of which it appeared.

“PowerPC G5 changes all the rules. This 64-bit sports car became the heart of the new Power Mac G5, which became the fastest desktop computer. IBM has the most extensive experience in the design and manufacture of processors, and this is only the beginning of a long and productive collaboration. ”

So Steve Jobs in a June 2003 press release announced the release of the PowerPC G5 processor , which was used in the Power Mac G5, the company's first 64-bit computer. The “long and productive collaboration” actually ended two years later, on the same stage of the Worldwide Developers Conference, where Jobs showed the world the G5 chip.

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Limitations of processors (and relationships) that led to the breakdown of Apple’s long partnership with IBM and Motorola

For two years, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has gone from making a statement about the enormous benefits of the G5 processor over a permanent WWDC audience to talking about how the company wants to completely abandon the entire PowerPC platform.

There were many reasons for this, but one of the most annoying was probably the problem of 3 gigahertz.You see, when Apple announced the release of the Power Mac G5 in 2003, Jobs announced that the company would soon begin shipping a machine with a 3 GHz processor, which turned out to be a little more ambitious compared to the true capabilities of the G5.

Talking about upgrading the chip to 2.5 gigahertz at WWDC 2004, Jobs made the following penitential statement:

I want to talk about two and a half gigahertz, because a year ago I stood here and said that in a year we will have three gigahertz. What happened? The following happened: as you know, the G5 is a very complex chip, and in the semiconductor industry, geometry is traditionally reduced to speed up work. Therefore, PowerPC was manufactured using a 130-nanometer process technology. And last year, the industry moved from 130 to 90 nanometers, expecting everything to work faster. But she ran into a wall. The whole industry rested on 90 nanometers in the wall, and the problem was much more complicated than they thought. Because of this, the speed increase was very small compared to what we are used to over the past five years.

Jobs was not happy to say such a thing from the stage; perhaps this was partly due to what pointed to another drawback of switching to the G5: a problem with the Powerbook. As explained by Low End Mac although IBM and Motorola have released mobile versions of different generations of PowerPC processors in the past, there have been delays at times between desktop and mobile versions of PowerPC generations. For example, the PowerBook G4 only appeared in 2001, a year and a half after the release of the Power Mac G4. However, the architectural problems of the G5, which did not allow the processor to reach a frequency of three gigahertz, testified that this processor, which was originally developed for powerful servers and workstations, could not be easily cut to meet the needs of laptop energy savings.

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There was a reason the Powerbook G4 did not turn into the Powerbook G5. ( mich1008/Flickr )

Today, a solution to this problem in the style of Intel would look like this: to develop a laptop with several cores in order to squeeze out more computing power from the previous generation. But multi-core CPUs were still a novelty and their potential was not tested, which caused the generation of Mac laptops to hang in limbo. Ultimately, the Powerbook line reached its peak in 2005 with the release of the single-core G4 processor, which was four times faster than the original G4, released six years earlier.

As explained in an article on CNet 2009 , there were a number of factors that contributed to moving away from PowerPC, including access to Windows and withering partnerships with IBM. Another factor was the price - in this aspect, Apple could force IBM to make concessions. Unfortunately, she did not succeed.

"Apple paid a heavy price for IBM chips, which created Trick-22," - wrote Brooke Crothers (it is curious that this is the same person whose article we quoted quite a bit above). “IBM had to push prices because it did not have an Intel economy, but Apple did not want to pay more, although it supposedly benefited more from the more advanced RISC implemented in the PowerPC architecture.”

For this and other reasons, two years after the announcement of the release of the G5, Jobs appeared on the WWDC stage, where he recognized his technical limitations and announced the transition to Intel.

“Looking to the future, Intel has the most reliable prospects of all,” - said Jobs, reporting the transition .“10 years have passed since switching to PowerPC, and we think that Intel technologies will help us create the best personal computers for the next 10 years.”

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The Power Mac G5 at the end of 2005, one of Apple's latest PowerPC models before moving to Intel. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Despite this announcement, three Mac models with a G5 processor - the Power Mac G5, iMac, and Xserve - continued to be sold. At the end of 2005, Apple even released a four-core model - its first model with a multi-core processor (in fact, there were two). But it was felt that the Mac fans this whole situation a little upset. Longtime Mac author John Siracusa described the situation in a 2005 article in Ars Technica /em>like this:

As far as I can remember, for the first time it turned out that the best in the new Mac line has a lower clock speed compared to its predecessor. However, Mac lovers are not particularly worried. Why? Because we all know that Quad can be called the “lame duck" of the Power Mac family. It was the last glimpse of the dying PowerPC revolution. We all understand why it did not reach 3 GHz. Now at IBM only the smallest possible team is working on it. The movement continues by inertia, because the fuel for the relationship between Apple and IBM ended a few months ago.

This was partly a fallacy - now we all understand that multi-core processors usually have lower frequencies than their single-core counterparts, but at that time it was not obvious. However, the main disappointment was caused by the fact that Apple did not keep the ambitious promises given to customers for obvious, but sad reasons.

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The internals of the Summit supercomputer that used IBM POWER9 processors. ( Jason Richards/Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Flickr )

IBM continued to improve its line of POWER processors without Apple as the main buyer: the new version POWER10 is expected this year. The legacy left by the PowerPC line is still applicable in some niche areas, for example, can still be bought today Amiga brand new computer with PowerPC chip based on the G5 dual-core architecture.

But the idea of ​​PowerPC as a mainstream desktop computing platform essentially died with the completion of the partnership between Apple and IBM.

Modern Intel processors , the multi-core versions of which Apple began to use immediately after their introduction, were a huge boon for the gradual introduction of MacOS.

In the early days of the Apple-Intel partnership, their use was a kind of “pressure control valve” for the processor limitations that the Power Mac G5 created for the Apple processor line. They helped Apple laptops, unable to take advantage of the 64-bit architecture promised to consumers by the PowerPC G5 computer, to rise from the performance plateau.

In many ways, a move away from PowerPC reflected a slow deterioration in the relationship between the three tech giants who were destined to go in different directions. IBM was more comfortable using the POWER architecture in servers and embedded systems (in the end, the company made open source architecture). Motorola completely withdrew from the chip business by transferring it to Freescale. And Apple is tired of waiting for new processors that match its release schedules and specifications.

Today, Apple is likely to feel a similar fatigue from Intel - a company that continues to produce wonderful chips, but with difficulty maintaining the same level of innovation; in addition, her small strategic mistakes turned into unexpectedly large failures. (As wrote in Stratechery Ben Thompson, Intel wanted her chip to be installed in the first iPhone, but decided not to lower the price. Bad move.) Her longtime opponent AMD wins the battle for more cores at a lower price. And Apple, it seems, is so tired of the Intel processor line that it completely abandoned entire product lines, such as the Mac Mini and Mac Pro, which gradually faded.

However, like PowerPC, Intel is committed to meeting the needs of its sophisticated customer. The company's processors are good, but Cupertino is not happy with the speed and pace of their release. And when the release of chips is postponed, Apple has to postpone the release of its products, that is, the cycle does not work perfectly, as was the case with the iPhone. Apple doesn’t like companies that disappoint it, which is why Nvidia GPUs are already many years do not put in her computers.

Of course, there are other choices in the x86 world - AMD’s Ryzen and Threadripper lines may seem tempting today, but Apple already has impressive mobile chipsets that can scale up much better than the G5 managed to scale down.

That is, apparently, Apple considers its own ARM chipsets as an opportunity for the long-awaited vertical integration, which the company has been going for 35 years. It’s good that this time she has enough money for this.