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Ctrl-Alt-Del: Did Apple reboot an important product announcement?

Status: [CLOSED] comments (65)
By Robert X. Cringely

Apple last week introduced a pair of very nice notebook computers that, not at all surprisingly, looked like riffs on the MacBook Air. The company in a separate announcement released 600 high-definition television episodes through the iTunes Store. This week Apple will reportedly release new 20-inch and 24-inch iMacs, also for the Christmas season. Two weeks, three announcements, but what strikes me (and apparently only me at this point) is what won't be announced -- the big surprises that are missing. What happened?

A MacBook and a MacBook Pro are nice, but not overwhelming. I like the dual GPU in the Pro and I hate the lack of a FireWire port in the MacBook, but beyond that there is little to say about these products except that the glass screens (on the iMacs, too) are better for houses like mine filled with LCD screen-destroying pre-school boys. These new products don't appear to break any price or performance barriers and sure as heck don't allow time travel or make me more handsome.

We were led to expect more -- a lot more. And I am not talking about rumors.

Back on July 21st in his regular conference call with industry analysts, Apple Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer said that Apple's profit margin would likely shrink from 34.8 percent in the just-concluded quarter to 31.5 percent in the quarter ending in September. "We've got a future product transition that I can't discuss with you today," Oppenheimer said as he spelled out the reasons for the anticipated profit reduction. "One of the reasons that we see gross margin being down sequentially is because of a product transition."

What kind of Apple product could be expected to come along, taking a $244 million profit hit for the company? It certainly isn't any of the products we've discussed so far, nor is it the iPhone 3G or the new iPod Touch, which have both been publicly dissected and found to have gross margins in the 56 percent range.

It's something else that was probably intended to be announced this week but wasn't.

The change of plan could have come for many reasons. Maybe the revolutionary product wasn't ready in time. Maybe introducing an aggressive, low-margin product in the middle of a global financial crisis was considered a bad risk. Maybe some strategic alliance had to be in place and wasn't ready. Whatever it was, the same analysts will ask about it this Tuesday when Apple has another such conference call scheduled.

But of course none of this keeps me from speculating about what's missing from Apple's announcements and the reasons it might be missing.

I think the delayed product has everything to do with Apple's desire for Blu-ray DVDs to die as a standard. Apple CEO Steve Jobs took a swipe at Blu-ray in last week's announcement -- a swipe that felt out of sync with the rest of the program. Steve has no difficulty at all NOT talking about subjects he wants to avoid, so leaning into Blu-ray was not at all offhand or without strategic importance. Don't expect Blu-ray drives on Apple computers, Steve said, yet he didn't offer a clear alternative.

The alternative Jobs would like to offer, of course, is full 1080p HD video distribution on iTunes, but that's not currently possible. It will happen in time, of course, but certain prerequisites have to be in place. Apple hardware has to support it in a practical sense, for one.

Interestingly, users of the new Apple notebooks began reporting that CPU utilization for H.264 decoding on their new machines dropped from 100 percent on an earlier model with the same processor to sub-20 percent on the new aluminum MacBooks. Though it wasn't announced, Apple seems to have (finally) enabled H.264 decoding on the Nvidia GPUs in these new machines.

Equally significant is the fact that ONLY H.264 appears to be accelerated. HD content using the MPEG-2 or VC-1 codecs seem to be not accelerated, which means this improvement is aimed specifically at Apple (iTunes) content, NOT physical media.

This is something we might have expected Apple to trumpet, but they don't offer any 1080p content yet other than movie trailers. Maybe it is better, Apple might imagine, to pre-seed this capability so more machines can take advantage of it when Apple 1080p content finally does appear.

What's yet to come, I'm guessing, is Apple's next OS X release, Snow Leopard, with QuickTime X -- the first version of QuickTime supposedly optimized for H.264 hardware decoding.

Snow Leopard is late, but then operating system updates are always late, no matter the vendor. This delay could be for any number of reasons and there are probably several, but one of them I can guarantee you has to do with H.264.

More than a year ago I made a big point of predicting that Apple would go to H.264 hardware acceleration, though I pinned it on a specific chip from NHK and NTT in Japan. This was after the usual evening of drinking with Japanese executives that typically reveals such information. Oh the sacrifices my liver makes for journalistic integrity!

So what happened to that NTT chip? I don't know. Maybe it was too expensive and fell out of the plan. Maybe it's in there still and Nvidia licensed technology from NHK and NTT to enable the new hardware acceleration (this is just a speculation -- I'm not at all saying they did). Maybe -- and this is the one I believe -- the discrete NTT chip was overtaken by a snowballing Apple strategy involving PA Semi, Apple's recently acquired division that designs microprocessors.

Here's the reasoning, which isn't all mine by any means. I have the smartest readers in the world and they are constantly giving me new things to think about.

First we see Apple moving away from Intel chipsets with these new MacBooks and probably with the iMacs to be introduced this week. Apple has always been involved in its own chipset design and giving up that capability to Intel until now didn't make much sense, especially considering the crappy Intel integrated graphics. It is logical to assume that Apple would reclaim its right to design or at least specify the chipset as soon as its internal engineering capability could support that.

Turning to Nvidia isn't the same as doing the chipset itself, but you can bet Apple's fingers are all over the chipsets in these new machines and that they are significantly different from those in notebooks from companies like Dell and HP.

There is a reason to be different here that goes beyond performance. That other reason is Psystar, the would-be seller of Mac clones with which Apple is now locked in a legal battle that could go either way. What if Psystar comes out on top and has the right to sell Mac clones based on the Hackintosh model? Then Apple will have to break that model by becoming more proprietary and therefore harder to emulate. Enter the third-party chipset, which is just the first step in Apple's effort to become immune to Psystar-type clones no matter what the court decides.

Second is Snow Leopard, itself. Apple has suggested that Snow Leopard won't have many new features but will be Apple's effort to more fully take advantage of multi-core processors. This harkens back to my parallel computing column of a couple weeks ago.

Snow Leopard, I'm told, will make seamless use of as many cores as are available. It isn't clear whether applications will have to be rewritten to take advantage of this capability, but I'm guessing they will have to be. This is just a guess, mind you, but is consistent with the sort of demands Apple likes to place on developers. Apple's own applications will be Snow Leopard-compatible you can bet, and will set a daunting performance standard in iMovie and Final Cut Pro.

Where PA Semi fits in is by providing to Apple a modular, Intel-compatible multi-core architecture that can scale to cover entire future Apple product lines. By dishing out more responsibility to the GPU, Apple can enable a much simpler CPU with as many cores as needed. Imagine a single core in an iPhone, two cores in an Apple TV, 2-4 cores in a notebook, 4-6 in an iMac, and 8+ in a Mac Pro. Wait a year then refresh all those platforms by doubling the number of cores with no change in software.

Moving to its own microprocessors would maintain Windows compatibility (though possibly at some lower performance level), cut hardware costs by $200 or so, and make it that much harder for others to build Mac clones in the future.

And what about the jump to 1080p video distribution on iTunes? That will require faster hardware, especially on the Apple TV, which really needs a refresh. It would have been nice to introduce all of this for Christmas, but I'm not surprised it slid. And maybe January MacWorld is better, anyway, if Apple can also introduce new Mac Pros for content creation and those rumored giant Apple displays (HDTVs) with their built-in Apple TVs.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (65)

I'm dubious about itunes being useful for TV distribution, I mean with any kind of mass acceptance.
I subscribe to ADSL television now and it is much more convenient than using an apple computer to watch TV. Also, Apple has to rely on the benevolence of ISPs to be their content distribution network, when ISPs may want to be their own content distribution network. Like I say, the whole thing sounds dubious to me.
Incidentally I never use itunes, nor the ipod. I have a cell phone that utilizes bluetooth and a micro SD card. My Sony stereo receives bluetooth signals, so I can literally sit down in the couch when I get home & play the stereo from the cell phone. You can't do that on an ipod or even an iphone, I do believe. You can't really do anything conveniently on an Apple. I used to like Apple but I missed out on the whole OS-X generation. Just seems like a big waste of money for a bunch of fluff.

Grunchy | Oct 23, 2008 | 3:11PM


Snow Leopard late, when it was only announced 4 months ago?

Cringely, any vestige of credibility you had just flew the coop!

MacSmiley | Oct 23, 2008 | 4:02PM

My Sony stereo receives bluetooth signals, so I can literally sit down in the couch when I get home & play the stereo from the cell phone. You can't do that on an ipod or even an iphone, I do believe. You can't really do anything conveniently on an Apple.

You'd be wrong :-)

Apple has a free "remote control" program for the iPhone and iPod Touch that talks to either your computer or your AppleTV ($229) over your wifi network and controls iTunes. If you don't have an AppleTV then you can run an audio cable from your computer to your TV, or use an Airport Express ($99).

I can literally sit down in the couch when I get home & play the stereo from the iPhone. Or from anywhere in the house or yard, for that matter.

Bruce Hoult | Oct 25, 2008 | 1:53AM