LinuxUser Column 6

It was the incredible rumour Apple fans didn’t want to believe. We all want to think that Apple are really working on a mind-blowingly incredible mobile phone, tablet computer, home media server, coffee maker… you get the idea. But the pride of Mac zealots wouldn’t let them accept that Intel was really, really an option. I mean, come on, Apple’s marketing since 1984 has been unequivocally and splendidly anti-PC, anti-Microsoft and anti-Intel; remember the snails carrying Pentiums or the Intel ‘bunnymen’ getting fried?

Those of us who have kept buying Macs understood that just because our PowerPC processors had a smaller number of Hertz than an Intel processor, it didn’t mean that they were slower. We dug the RISC stuff, the multiple pipelines, more operations per cycle and lower power consumption that the PowerPC architecture sported. To this day that stuff is nearly still all true, next generation gaming consoles are going to be packing PowerPC chips. But power consumption is where the game changed.

The G3 and G4 chips had incredibly low power consumption, hence the iBook’s wonderful battery life. But the G5 just couldn’t get there, it’s performance came at the price of increased power needs and so more heat being pumped out. Apple hoped that the hurdles would be cleared and that the G5 could work in low power, compact settings. But with products like the legendary PowerBook getting long in the tooth, and still no good news from the PowerPC manufacturers, the options were running out.

In the face of PowerPC technology holding the low power crown for several years Intel responded with significant new investment and some great innovations. The result is what Mac-heads still have trouble digesting, the Mac is going to be running Intel inside from 2006. The crown is resting on a new head.

This isn’t just about the shock I, a dedicated Mac user, had when reading the news of the switch to Intel. This development shows an interesting contradictory trend in the world of technology. In the world of desktop and server processors were are seeing declining diversity. The PowerPC is on the way out from Apple; Sun, despite continuing to develop their SPARC chips, has caved in and started selling AMD x86-based machines whilst ensuring that Solaris now runs on Intel chips; Silicon Graphics also now offer Intel-based systems and HP are migrating all their server customers of a number of different chip technologies onto Intel’s Itanium chips. Intel is utterly dominant in the desktop space and is growing in the server market.

The fact is that as the transistors on chips become ever tinier the costs of designing, testing and mass manufacturing central processors has become increasingly capital intensive. Intel truly is a behemoth, the only one with sufficient resources to develop and produce numerous chip product lines simultaneously. Sun, a mighty force in many people’s minds, cannot work on more than one chip at a time resulting in difficult choices over which chip they bring to market first when they try to address a large number of different market segments.

Now compare with the world of software. Thanks to the Free Software movement we have incredible diversity in operating systems (look at all those flavours of Linux and BSD) let alone applications. Open standards and APIs make it incredibly easy for tiny teams to build highly complex and functional software. So strangely as more and more people use Intel (or compatible) processors the type and range of software they use expands. Perhaps because there is de facto standardisation on x86 CPUs the software development marketplace has been simplified.

Talking of diversity I recently spent some time in Dubai, the most colourful and liberal city in the United Arab Emirates. The market areas, known as souqs, are a marvellous array of smells, sights and colours. They’re divided into distinctive areas such as the gold souq, textile souq and perfume souq. The competition is quite extraordinary – so many people are trying to sell similar or identical products that the room for playing shops off each other during bargaining is near endless. I love a good haggle!

I took a few strolls through the electronics souq and was dazzled by the products on offer. But, despite the reputation, I didn’t find the prices to be particularly low at all. In fact I often spotted better prices in some of the major supermarkets. What I did learn however was that much of what was presented for sale were copies. Taking a better look the next time I passed through I noticed that the Sony DVD players, JVC stereos and Braun shavers somehow didn’t look quite right.

Somewhere out there people are building fake consumer electronics with nearly identical packaging to the originals, yet the prices are not especially great. Where do the chips and circuits come from to build these fakes? Are they buying commercial chips or are there Bond-eque secret chip fabs hidden under mountain lakes? I’m not sure but I decided to steer clear, preferring to spend my cash on a Persian rug instead. It’s not digital but it sure looks wonderful.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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