Thursday, January 25, 2007

Big Brother to Saviour, and a Fall from Grace

Yesterday I blogged briefly about the 23rd birthday of the Mac. I had a few thoughts about the famous "1984" Super Bowl ad that I didn't get to yesterday, so here they are now.

To recap, Apple aired this ad a single time1, during the 1984 Super Bowl. A link to a video of the ad, and a bit of a summary, were in yesterday's post.

In the ad, "Big Brother" represents IBM, whose PCs (and mainframes) were the norm among "mindless" business users. (IBM's semi-official nickname is "Big Blue", a fact I'm sure was not lost on the writers of the ad2).

In retrospect, this ad is made rather ironic by subsequent events. Apple and IBM became close allies less than ten years later, as part of the "AIM" (Apple/IBM/Motorola) alliance that created the PowerPC processor. (They had other partnerships in that time frame, but none that were as significant). The PowerPC, in one incarnation or another, powered every Mac from 1994 through the Intel transition in 2005. Motorola initially played the largest role in the alliance from Apple's perspective, and supplied the processors (the PowerPC 601, 603, 604, G3, and G4) that Apple was using. But, by 2002 or so, Motorola was having a great deal of trouble developing newer and faster chips; the G4 had stagnated for quite some. IBM came to the rescue with the PowerPC G5, a processor that trounced its competitors, and put Apple back in the performance game. So, we have IBM going from "evil Big Brother" to ally to saviour of Apple in nineteen years.

However, IBM was unable to improve the G5 quickly enough for Apple's (or, more accurately, Steve's) liking. IBM had privately promised Steve that the chip would go from 2 GHz to 3 GHz within one year, and Steve passed along that promise during the WWDC 2003 Keynote, when he introduced the G5. There was much fanfare and cheering in the audience at the time, since the clock speed of Motorola's PowerPC G4 had stagnated for years, and this rapid increase in speed would be a welcome change. Furthermore, 3 GHz would compare quite favorably with the Intel camp.

However, a year later at WWDC 2004, IBM had only been able to deliver a "modest" 500 MHz increase to 2.5 GHz. I put "modest" in quotes not only because a 25% increase in speed is not insignificant, but because rivals Intel and AMD had been having similar troubles ramping their clock speeds. By the next WWDC, in 2005, clock speeds had only gone to 2.7 GHz. In was partially in response to this perceived lack of increasing speed that Apple announced the Intel transition at that conference. (Some might note that it was only this past year, at WWDC 2006, that Intel was able to cross the 3 GHz threshold, with the Xeon processors in the Mac Pro. As previously mentioned, it was not only IBM that was having trouble ramping clock speeds.)

So, within two years, we have IBM falling from their role as "saviour", and being tossed aside as second class. At this point, to the best of my knowledge, Apple and IBM don't have any meaningful collaborations going on.

It's been an interesting 23 years for the two companies.

  1. Actually, it aired a second time in order to satisfy eligibility requirements for the 1983 advertising awards. Viewers of a small town station in Idaho (all two of them) got to see it during the night of December 15. I can't find the reference for this at the moment, but Wikipedia (I know, I know) cites the book Apple Confidential, which is believe where I read it. 
  2. When I was a summer intern at IBM, one of the events we had during orientation week was a "rubber ducky race" in the creek that run through the Lab's property. Each intern got a yellow plastic duck (with a unique number written on the bottom) that we were supposed to decorate. They got released en masse in the creek, and the person's whose duck finished first won some sort of prize. Gotta love team building exercises, eh? So what's the point of this story?3 Well, we all had to name our ducks. Mine was called "Big Yellow". 
  3. Homer: You know, when I was a boy, I really wanted a catcher's mitt, but my dad wouldn't get it for me. So I held my breath until I passed out and banged my head on the coffee table.

    [cheerily] The doctor thought I might have brain damage.

    Bart: Dad, what's the point of this story?

    Homer: [cheerily] I like stories.4


  4. Episode 9F03 Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie 

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