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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | MAC SMART / CHARLES PILLER

Drop the Talk of an Intel Shift

March 24, 1997|CHARLES PILLER

In the days surrounding Apple's inevitable Friday Night Massacre--March 14, when it announced it would fire 4,100--I found myself pondering what the reorganization means for Apple's hardware. So I went to Apple's new vice president for hardware engineering, Jon Rubinstein.

A Steve Jobs protege, Rubinstein made a rapid segue from semi-retirement as a private consultant a few weeks ago to top wirehead for the fourth-largest personal computer maker. He's a bright guy and a talented engineer, but Rubinstein's a good choice for a different reason--his roots.

He held a top job at Next Computer, source of the new Mac operating system. And he was chief operating officer at FirePower Systems--a small start-up (which recently became part of Motorola) that developed fast computers based on the PowerPC central processor, the chip that also powers the Mac.

"Coming from a start-up, I've lived in the world of reality for a long time," Rubinstein said. "The advantage of being a small company is the tremendous focus you get."

When asked where that focus will lead, Rubinstein made vague comments consistent with Apple's stated commitment to its core markets--education, multimedia, Web development, publishing and home users. He spoke about enhancing Apple's historic integration of hardware and software, and the Mac's ease of use. He supported the reduction in the announced number of Mac models to keep potential buyers from fainting in confusion over arcane differences between Performas and Power Macs.

And he talked about reining in Apple's unwieldy ambitions. "We can't do as many whizzy things that aren't in the mainstream of what we need to accomplish," he said. "The not-invented-here syndrome is really damaging." Apple has nearly succumbed to a terminal case of that.

Some recently announced cuts fit Rubinstein's logic. Why should Apple continue with videoconferencing, for example, when others can provide great technologies that can be integrated into Macs without wasting increasingly precious R&D resources?

But the only telling insight Rubinstein offered reflects how much distance Apple still needs to travel to bring order to its planning process: "Let me be clear that we are a PowerPC Mac company--that's what I'm doing for the next couple of years. As far as porting Mac OS to Intel, I don't know anything about that. And I'm not sure it would make any sense."

His software counterpart, Avadis Tevanian, not to mention Steve Jobs, begs to differ. Both have openly suggested that Apple's future lies in Intel chips. CEO Gil Amelio has been content to let confusion reign.

Why move to Intel when Apple has already got a competitive chip, Rubinstein asks. "Right now, PowerPC is on a roll. This year and next year, the road map is awesome," he said. He's right. PowerPC is already at 240 megahertz--both for desktop systems and Apple's superb new PowerBook 3400, which I'm writing this column on. This year PowerPC will jump to 300 MHz for mainstream desktops, and to an astonishing 533 MHz for high-end publishing systems. It's the rest of Apple's hardware that's falling behind.

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OK, forget for now that monumental efforts would be required to move the Mac OS to Intel hardware smoothly. And forget the dubious prospect that Mac on Pentium would woo Windows users en masse. Apple execs should shut up about moving to Intel unless they agree on a plan to execute the switch.

"By giving credence to the rumor about moving to Intel, all they've done is freeze developers in their tracks," said Peter Mehring, vice president and general manager of Umax Computer.

Let's hope Rubinstein can help bring a little discipline to Apple's executive offices.

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Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at cpiller@aol.com

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