Apple and AMD have been working together of late, a senior AMD official admitted at the launch of the chip maker's 64-bit Opteron processor this week.
During the press Q&A, the head of AMD's server business, Marty Seyer, said the company had been talking to "all tier one and tier two vendors". Of course, only a few of them have committed themselves to supporting Opteron, leaving the company with its usual base of little known customers, but that's by the by.
All tier one and tier two vendors? we wondered, and later popped the question, "so can we conclude you've been talking to Apple as well, then?"
Said senior official fell silent for a moment then turned to his PR minder and asked, "Can we talk about what we're doing with them yet?" The answer was a muddy 'not sure... have to get back to on that' kind of thing.
So what can we read into this little interchange? Certainly there have been rumours aplenty in the past concerning Apple's possible migration to the x86 world, and AMD's x86-64 technology - now officially known as 'AMD64', by the way - in particular. We've always found such claims incredible, given the considerable difficulties of managing the migration users and software developers to a new platform. Yes, Apple is a past master at this, witness the 680x0 to PowerPC shift, but don't underestimate the effort involved.
Then again, practical issues, such as the paucity of high-performance PowerPC processors might just tip Apple's hand, forcing the company to take the hard path because it has no choice.
With IBM's 64-bit PowerPC 970 coming up, it's hard to imagine Apple feeling such pressure right now. Assuming it does choose to use the 970 - and all the indications are that it will - it will gain a significant speed boost, and an easy migration path to 64-bit computing. Users can continue to run 32-bit Mac OS X and their 32-bit apps natively on the 970, upgrading when they see fit first to a 64-bit version of the OS - which should boost the performance of 32-bit apps too - and then to 64-bit apps.
That's the same path AMD is offering to 32-bit Windows and Linux users: the 'no brainer' option of better 32-bit performance today, with 64-bit upgradeability for tomorrow coming effectively free of charge.
Its success depends on the availability of 64-bit apps and hardware vendor support. Apple doesn't have to worry about the latter, but it is concerned about winning the hearts and minds and coding fingers of its developers, and that's why the delayed Worldwide Developers Conference is expected to see the launch of 64-bit Mac OS X and 64-bit development tools.
Many of those developers also work on Windows code, and quite a few will be - we suspect - watching the take-up of Opteron and, later, Athlon 64 with interest. The technology's relevance to consumers is limited, but it's of considerable importance to digital content creators, a key Apple audience. AMD64 has the potential to attract a lot of content creators to the x86 world by providing very significant performance gains not only through 64-bit computing but through the infrastructure technology AMD has put in place, such as the on-die memory controller and using HyperTransport as the system bus.
Now, we're not saying that 64-bit Photoshop et al running natively on AMD64 CPUs is going to happen anytime soon, or that if it does, pro Mac users are going to switch over in droves. But the availability of such a set-up, especially if Apple hasn't got anything comparable to offer, will slowly erode Apple's user base.
It was always assumed that Apple's adoption of the PowerPC 970 was driven by the need to get closer to achieving performance parity with x86 processors. But the arrival of AMD64 technology makes that adoption a necessity. Success for AMD depends on many factors, not least what Intel may offer as an alternative. Rumours have already claimed Intel's next major mainstream processor, Prescott, will feature AMD64 technology or something similar. While that would effectively doom Intel's expensive Itanium project to all but the highest-end applications, Intel may choose to risk that if it sees AMD making too many inroads into its Xeon and Pentium sales.
Again, that puts even greater pressure on Apple to keep up or risk appearing out-moded. Again, PowerPC 970 offers Apple the only way to stay in the game.
Even then it's going to be tough. Full independent benchmarks are only just starting to emerge comparing Opteron with Xeon and other processors, and the results are looking good for AMD. AMD's own figures, for its 1.8GHz Opteron 144, intended for uni-processor systems, show the chip yields peak SPECint2000 and SPECintFP scores of 1170 and 1219, respectively. IBM's preliminary numbers for the 970 (also at 1.8GHz) are 937 and 1051.
IBM may up the figures at launch, and in any case, real-world performance depends on system configuration. Even if Apple achieves performance parity - a significant milestone, it must be said - the pressures on AMD to ramp up AMD64 performance are arguably greater than IBM's need to speed the 970.
So should Apple go AMD64? And might that be the basis for those comments from the senior AMD guy? We find it hard to imagine that AMD hasn't been talking to Apple, if only informally. Just as Dell regularly converses with AMD to keep Intel to heel, so Apple almost certainly talks to AMD and Intel to keep the pressure on Motorola and IBM. At the very least, it needs to keep up with trends among other processor platforms so it has an up-to-date contingency plan in case PowerPC proves untenable.
We're more inclined to believe that any recent co-operation between the two companies centres on Apple's move to HyperTransport as the basis of future Power Mac systems. Apple is a founding member of the HyperTransport Consortium, and its next-generation Power Macs are rumoured to sport an HT bus. The PowerPC 970 has a frontside bus capable of 6.4GBps throughput - exactly what you'd expect from a coherent HT link.
Good sources suggest we'll learn the truth at WWDC, when Apple is expected to come clean about its 64-bit strategy and the hardware that will drive that programme. We don't expect Apple to announce its pro workstations will, say, be based on Opteron 244 processors and Nvidia's workstation-oriented nForce Pro 3 250 chipset, but stranger things have happened. At this stage we'd put more money on AMD than on the likelihood Motorola can pull a 64-bit G4 out of thin air...
No, the PowerPC 970 remains the chief candidate. And we'd caution against reading too much into the AMD official's comments. But we think it unwise to rule out the possibility of co-operation between Apple and AMD, particularly at the HyperTransport level. ®