Apple pins hopes on Gossamer Macs

Seeking to stabilise its finances after about US$2 billion in losses in the last 18 months, Apple Computer is banking on two new system designs to re-energise its Mac sales and profits. Both machines - code-named Kansas and Gossamer - will boast faster bus technology and PowerPC processors with clock speeds up to 350MHz. But Apple won't be letting Mac cloners get their hands on the hardware for a while.

Seeking to stabilise its finances after about US$2 billion in losses in the last 18 months, Apple Computer is banking on two new system designs to reenergize its Mac sales and profits.

One system, code-named Kansas, is due between September and November, while the other system, code-named Gossamer, is due by the Macworld Expo in San Francisco in January 1998, according to several industry sources. The systems would replace the Power Mac 9600 and perhaps 8600. (Apple does not comment on unannounced products.)

The Kansas system is essentially a modified 9600 that uses the forthcoming PowerPC G3 CPU at speeds of 266MHz initially and a new, inline cache that essentially doubles the CPU-to-cache communication speed to 100MHz from the 50MHz speed in today's 9600. (The Kansas system, likely to be named the 9700, also has a 50MHz bus, sources say.)

People who have seen the Kansas system describe it as surprisingly fast, particularly now that Apple apparently has fixed some flaws in its inline cache architecture that caused unexpected slowdown. It is unclear which of the two G3 CPUs Apple will use: Motorola and IBM will offer the PowerPC 740 version and the PowerPC 750 version. The two are the same except that the 750 has a direct, high-speed cache connection on the CPU, while the 740 communicates with the cache over the Mac's system bus or via an inline cache bus.

The Gossamer system will use the forthcoming 300MHz and 350MHz PowerPC 604e, a series of redesigned versions of today's 604e known by the code name Mach 5. The Gossamer systems will have a fast system bus, likely at 66MHz. That's the same speed that the Common Hardware Platform (CHRP) will initially offer, but Apple will be using a mixture of proprietary technology and CHRP technologies, not a pure CHRP solution.

High-end systems are the most profitable, and in the last year Apple has faced fierce competition in the high end from faster, cheaper Macs primarily from Power Computing and Umax Computer. At the same time, Apple has lost tens of millions of dollars on low-profit entry-level Power Macs and Performas - in some cases it has had to sell such systems below cost to clear inventory.

To help ensure that its Kansas and Gossamer systems bring in enough profits, Apple has apparently decided to keep the competition at bay, giving Apple a head start in selling the next generation of high-performance Macs, according to industry sources.

According to sources, Apple will not let the other Mac makers use the G3 or Mach 5 CPUs in their existing designs. Instead, Apple will require that systems using these CPUs be certified by Apple, which delays their release. Apple has done the same thing to the other Mac makers with the new high-speed 603e CPUs, the 250MHz, 275MHz, and 300MHz 603e's known by the code name Goldeneye. The other Mac makers can't simply use them in their existing Mac designs, and so far Apple has not certified any competing systems using these CPUs. (Apple has just begun to ship the Power Mac 5500 and 6500 systems using the 250MHz and 275MHz 603e's; the 300MHz systems are due in June.)

At the same time, according to sources, Apple will require Mac makers using the Common Hardware Reference Platform to have Apple certify any CHRP systems using the G3 and Mach 5. That certification process can take a month or more, and it lets Apple decide whether to permit another Mac maker's technology, even though the CHRP standard was meant to get Apple out of the certification business by providing an open standard whose requirements were independently verifiable. The other Mac makers have been calling on Apple to disband its certification requirement or to let the Mac makers set up a neutral, independent certification process, but Apple has so far declined.

The required certification comes on top of the delay in Apple's delivering the CHRP ROMs and the CHRP-compatible version of the Mac OS, means that Mac makers will unlikely be able to offer competing G3 and Mach 5-based systems before Apple has its Kansas and Gossamer systems available. Apple has also decided not to license its Kansas and Gossamer motherboard designs to the other Mac makers, at least not until Apple has made its systems available, an Apple official said (without admitting the existence of the two products).

Finally, Apple has gotten commitments from IBM and Motorola for large volumes of the new CPUs, giving it a priority over other Mac makers. One source told Macworld that the chip companies had little choice, since the other Mac makers won't be able to deliver systems - and thus won't be able to buy CPUs - until after Apple does.

While the other Mac makers understand Apple's need to gain new revenues, rather than rely on continued cost-cutting, they are concerned that the apparent tactic of suppressing or delaying competition will continue even after Apple starts to deliver financially successful systems, creating a two-tier Mac market that does not deliver on the promise of a competitive, open Mac systems market.

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