As Apple Computer Inc. draws up its game plan for the CPUs that will power its future generations of Mac hardware, the company is holding an ace in the hole: a feature-complete version of Mac OS X running atop the x86 architecture.
According to sources, the Cupertino, Calif., Mac maker has been working steadily on maintaining current, PC-compatible builds of its Unix-based OS. The project (code-named Marklar, a reference to the race of aliens on the "South Park" cartoons) has been ongoing inside Apple since the early days of its transition to the Unix-based Mac OS X in the late '90s.
Sources said more than a dozen software engineers are tasked to Marklar, and the company's mainstream Mac OS X team is regularly asked to modify code to address bugs that crop up when compiling the OS for x86. Build numbers keep pace with those of their pre-release PowerPC counterparts; for example, Apple is internally running a complete, x86-compatible version of Jaguar, a k a Mac OS X 10.2, which shipped last week.
Apple did not return calls requesting comment.
But a switch to Intel or Advanced Micro Devices Inc. processors is probably not in the cards for tomorrow's Macs, sources said. Such a move would require a massive revision of Apple's closed hardware architecture and a fundamental rethinking of its business model, which is founded on tight integration between its proprietary system software and hardware. Apple would have to also coax most of its third-party developers to rewrite their applications from the ground up in the company's Cocoa application environment. (Most major vendors have instead tuned their applications to Carbon, a set of Mac OS X-compatible APIs originally culled from the classic Mac OS and rooted in the PowerPC architecture.)
Nevertheless, Marklar has apparently gained strategic relevance in recent months, as Apple's relationship with Motorola has grown strained and Apple looks to alternative chip makers.
Apple has reportedly been dissatisfied with the slow rate of Motorola's PowerPC development after committing to the PowerPC G4 as the centerpiece of its current desktops and professional laptop systems. The Power Mac G4 systems Apple unveiled in August topped off with a dual-1.25GHz system, a disappointing increase from the dual-GHz top model released in January. Meanwhile, users have debated whether the DDR support in the new systems is fully exploited by the G4 processors Motorola was able to provide.
The likeliest solution to the Motorola impasse, sources said: A desktop version of the 64-bit Power4 server chip in the works from IBM, which co-developed the PowerPC platform alongside Motorola and Apple and has provided CPUs for a variety of Macs. Sources told eWEEK that Apple and IBM are collaborating closely to equip the Power4 with the Altivec vector-processing capabilities built into the PowerPC G4. IBM is expected to discuss its new CPU at October's Microprocessor Forum.
As it weighs the future of the Mac as a PowerPC platform, Marklar offers a relatively low-cost way of keeping the company's options open. "It's a hedge," one observer said. "It's a small price to pay to make sure Apple has a fallback plan."
"Steve [Jobs] has said Mac OS X is the OS for the next 15 years," another source said. "Marklar is a way of making sure that's true."
Jobs himself has hinted that Apple won't be constrained by the PowerPC alliance if better options present themselves. The Apple CEO renewed speculation about Apple's hardware future with remarks he made at a July meeting with analysts. "Between Motorola and IBM, the roadmap looks pretty decent," Jobs said. However, he said that after early 2003 (when he forecast the transition to Mac OS X would be complete), the company will re-examine its processor partnerships. "We'll have options, and we like to have options"
At the company's shareholder meeting in April, however, Jobs asserted that Apple has "no plans" for a switch to Intel. When a shareholder argued that a move could be beneficial to the company, Jobs replied, "That is an opinion."
Despite its current PowerPC pedigree, Mac OS X's roots tap Intel hardware. In December 1996, Apple acquired NeXT Software Inc. and its Intel-compatible OpenStep operating system. Under the company's "Rhapsody" OS strategy, it planned to base the next-generation Mac OS on OpenStep, shipping an Intel version to provide a cross-platform development environment. While developer previews of Rhapsody for Intel were released, it was never shipped to customers and quietly left the limelight as Apple's software strategy was refined into today's OS X.
Apple's current efforts come nearly a decade after the company grounded its "Star Trek" program, a collaboration with Novell to develop the Mac's System 7 on Intel microprocessors. While a working prototype was put together in just three months, interest from PC vendors never materialized. In 1993 the project was rolled into Apple's Advanced Technology Group before it fell victim to budget cuts.