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Apple to ship PPC970 Macs ahead of 64-bit OS X

Smoothing the upgrade path

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Apple may not await the arrival of a 64-bit version of Mac OS X 10.3, codenamed 'Panther', before shipping new Power Macs based on IBM's 64-bit PowerPC 970 processor.

Instead, a version of the 32-bit Mac OS X 10.2 - possibly 10.2.7; the current release is 10.2.6 - will ship with the machines, allowing Apple to benefit from the new chip while it completes a full 64-bit version of its operating system.

So claim Matt Rothenberg and Nick Ciarelli over at eWeek, citing unnamed sources. Both have a record of hitting the Apple nail on the head, so this latest news is worthy of consideration.

According to the eWeek story, Apple has new Power Mac hardware ready - the design is codenamed Q37 - but the 64-bit incarnation of Panther is lagging behind. The source of the problem is the state of PowerPC 970 support in the GCC 3 compiler Apple uses to build OS X, the source suggest.

Fortunately, the 970 is designed to support 32-bit code natively. At the chip's announcement, at last October's Microprocessor Forum, IBM senior processor architect Peter Sandon said that the chip would run existing 32-bit operating systems (no names were mentioned) "with minor modifications". Apple, it seems, has made those changes.

That paves the way for 970-based Macs sooner rather than later. Panther isn't expected to ship until September, Apple's now established OS X integer release timeslot. Q37 may ship July or August, say eWeek's sources. Buyers won't get the benefits of 64-bit computing, but they will be able to take advantage of the 970's higher clock speeds - IBM has said it will ship at 1.8GHz - and the system architecture improvements Apple has allegedly made to support the new processor, including a high speed 6.4GBps system bus. Other enhancements hinted at by rumour sites include AGP 8x, 400MHz DDR SDRAM support and USB 2.0.

So users get faster machines, and Apple gets time to finish off its 64-bit OS. Developers win too, since Apple is effectively creating an installed base of 64-bit capable systems that will be ready to take advantage of 64-bit application upgrades after Panther has shipped. Users may be less willing to go 64-bit if they have to buy new kit and new apps all in one go - a staggered roll-out, hardware first, OS in September, apps later - makes it easier for users to buy into the technology. It's an approach not too dissimilar from the one AMD is taking with its own transition to 64-bit technology.

Given the pent up demand for faster Power Macs, we're sure plenty of folk would buy into Apple's 64-bit vision in any case, but this approach has the advantage of smoothing the upgrade path for both users and developers.

The OS update that adds 970 support is apparently codenamed 'Smeagol' after the Lord of the Rings character also known as Gollum. We're not sure why. Mac OS X 10.2 updates have so far had colour codenames - 10.2.4 was 'Jaguar Pink', for instance; 10.2.6 was 'Jaguar Black'. ®

Related Link

eWeek: 64-bit Macs may outpace Panther

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