Apple ponders further PowerPC partners

Processor supply solution no. 473

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Apple may be attempting to persuade its PowerPC partners, Motorola and IBM, to open the platform to other chip makers through a Palm-style licensing programme.

The scheme is said to be described in internal Apple documents leaked to the Mac rumour site everyone loves to hate but which does come up with the goods now and then (we leave it to our readers to decide whether they want to believe any of it, so please, no 'how could you...' emails on the subject).

Said memoranda would have Apple, IBM and Motorola license the PowerPC instruction set to other vendors and provide venture funding to help licensees develop and market their products. Apple is apparently looking for new PowerPC Alliance members who want to produce PPC-compatible chips based on both existing designs and architectures of their own.

That Apple might moot such a scheme is entirely plausible. Apple's ability to compete with the Wintel world is primarily - but not exclusively - pinned to the good availability of fast PowerPC processors, and given the problems it has had getting parts out of Motorola, it's no wonder it would like multiple sources.

Of course, whether Apple is actually suggesting such a programme, or is simply thinking out loud about ways of alleviating its processor supply problems is another matter. We haven't seen the alleged Apple internal documents, so we can't judge its tone - or their authenticity.

As a business, the company has to consider alternatives to its existing processor and hardware strategy. But it's important not to confuse a company's exploration of its options - however radical - as an indication that it's planning to choose one of them. But extending the PowerPC Alliance certainly strikes us as a feasible line for Apple to pursue.

Motorola and IBM are another matter, and we can't see them taking to the plan with much enthusiasm. Neither company is as close to the other as they were when they began working on the platform back in the early 1990s, and are keen to protect their own intellectual property and their markets.

That said, their distance makes them less protective of their common properties, and that could make the possibility of allowing other chip companies into the Alliance more likely - a kind of 'divide and conquer' mentality, if you will.

The problem for Apple, though, is that such move probably wouldn't help it all that much. Sun's move to open the design of its processor families - anyone can download and work with the designs, etc.; they only pay royalties when they ship a commercial product - but take-up has largely been limited to small companies targeting embedded applications.

There's no indication to suggest that new PowerPC licensees would be any different. Apple needs solid desktop processors, not more basic chips aimed to routers, PDAs and the like.

We stress again, we haven't seen the documents, but the plan they're said to describe is a plausible line for the three companies to take. In an increasingly open source world - as an example there is Apple's own Darwin OS core - it would certainly help stress their collaborative development credentials. But it probably wouldn't change the dynamic of their three-way relationship, and that's of little consolation to Apple customers waiting for faster Macs. ®

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