The next version of the Sony PlayStation will likely outpace your G5. How does that make you feel? You might think that applies just to the G5 iMac, not your beefed-up dual-2.5GHz behemoth, but don’t be so sure. The heart of the new PlayStation, due sometime between next Christmas and Christmas 2007, is going to be a 64-bit processor made by IBM. I know you might have two of those under the hood already, but not processors like these.

Codenamed the Cell, it’s more than just a simple processor, as we’re used to. The main part of the Cell is something along the lines of a fast G5, but that’s just the head of the beast – there are a further eight processing units that are part of the chip. It is being described as a supercomputer on a chip. The roadmap included speeds up to 4.6GHz, so it’s going to be really, really fast.

The fact that this processor is going to debut in a gaming machine is a bit of a reality check for the world of personal computers. In effect it’s saying that your personal computer – Mac or PC – is fast enough for now. The demand for high-volume, high-spec processors isn’t coming from the average computer user. In the Windows world, the only people that are paying big bucks for PCs are game fanatics rather than your average Joe. On the Mac side of the fence there’s far more reason to look for a fast machine – video, music, even design and page-layout can still benefit from faster machines. People that simply type all day for a living are probably fine for the moment.

If we divide up the consumers of processing power, we might have these categories: simple users using email, Web and word processors; creative users with processor-hungry applications; gamers using graphics-hungry games; and the science community that require massive processing power. Of those four, the simple users are mostly using PCs and have little need for faster processors. The gamers (if you include console gamers) may well outnumber the simple users, and they will remain hungry for power until virtual reality is indistinguishable from the real thing. The creative users, who are more likely to be Mac people, would like more power but are relatively niche when compared to the number of gamers. The scientists need more power than anybody, but they are an even smaller group than the creative users.

By this measure, it’s obvious that the biggest market for power is the gaming community – but next biggest market that wants more power is creative (like the ones that use Macs, for example). So let’s let the gamers have their fun – but maybe we should be next in line for a massive power boost.

I wonder how realistic that is, though? By far the biggest personal-computer market is the Windows PC market. The vast majority of PCs sit in businesses where the most taxing activity they get up to is a mail merge. Who knows, though
– maybe the next version of Windows (Longhorn) will require
a processor of that calibre to launch Word. Or perhaps a 4.6GHz processor will be needed to combat viruses and spam.

I’m more inclined to think that the creative market will be the next area for the Cell processor to be aimed at. So that begs the question: will we get them in Macs?

It would certainly be a big change in architecture, moving from a G5 processor to a multiprocessor-on-chip behemoth is no small feat. However, there are reasons that Apple might want to go down that road: it already has a 64-bit processor, and the speed bumps aren’t coming as quickly or as cheaply as anybody would like.

I’m no engineer, but it seems that a super-modified G5 processor would be easier for Apple to support than it would be for Microsoft to recompile Windows to run on it, or Longhorn for that matter. Apple also has a good history of migrating its users from on architecture or operating system to another. Owning the hardware and the software makes that so much easier to make these kinds of changes.

Microsoft on the other hand would have a bit of a battle on its hands. First, the technology isn’t an Intel technology, which would certainly upset a lot of people. Second, the processor is made by Apple partner IBM, along with Toshiba and Sony. The interesting thing here is that Sony is a partner in the processor design. It will use the processors in the PS3 console, so is unlikely to want rival Xbox manufacturer Microsoft to be able to use the hardware.

This is despite the fact that IBM will also make the processor for Xbox 2, to be based on the G5 – which means that licensing the processor to Windows PC manufacturers is unlikely. But licensing it to Apple is a different prospect: Apple can offer a solution that doesn’t let the technology out to unwanted developers like Microsoft.

So imagine, if you will, a Mac with a eight-core processor (maybe even two) running at 4.6GHz. That should be enough to render HD resolution cinematic-quality animation on the fly. It would take that kind of task to even put a little pressure on that kind of processor power. So imagine how InDesign would fly, Photoshop would soar… and Word would launch in seconds!

Before we get carried away, though, IBM and Sony are planning to create their own workstation to create game content for the PS3. If Steve Jobs was clever, which I’m sure he is, he would volunteer to develop a version of OS X to run on the processor. That way all PS3 development would run on a Mac operating system. Then, of course, once the operating system is written, Jonathan Ive could design a real workstation, and bingo – a new generation of Pro Macs.

Sure, there might be other Cell processor workstations running OS X – probably made by Sony or IBM. But it would be in a world where Windows didn’t even exist. It would also give hardware manufacturers the opportunity to produce very expensive machines that make lots of profit. Just like the good old days...