In all the excitement of the Mac's 20th anniversary, another turning point in Apple's history has been overlooked. Ten years ago, less than a month after it shipped the world's first consumer digital camera, Apple launched the original Power Mac. The transition from Motorola's 680x0 chips to PowerPC was a shift just as challenging for Apple as that from Mac OS 9 to OS X.
The 680x0 chip family was fast running out of steam, especially in the face of Intel's x86 technology that dominated the PC industry. Apple did consider moving the Mac to Intel's architecture. In 1992 Apple and networking giant Novell began work on a project called Star Trek - so called because it would boldly go somewhere Apple had never been before, and also because computer engineers like dressing up as Klingons. When Bill Gates heard of the attempt to run the Mac on Intel, he sneered that it would be "like putting lipstick on a chicken".
In just a few months the engineers had the Finder, QuickTime and parts of several Apple technologies running on a 486 PC. Unfortunately, in-fighting at Apple and the wariness of developers who'd have to rewrite all their software fired a photon torpedo directly at Star Trek.
Apple instead devoted all its R&D to a partnership with Motorola and old foe IBM. IBM was furious with Microsoft for sneakily pulling out of its joint venture to produce a new operating system called OS/2 in order to release its own suspiciously similar Windows NT. Both Apple and IBM wanted to bloody Bill's nose. In 1991 Apple showed its in-development Mac OS - code-named Pink - running on an IBM PC. IBM pledged to help develop Pink and promised Apple a licence to its forthcoming PowerPC processor.
The PowerPC was a RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) processor. RISC allowed a chip to be more efficient than Intel and Motorola's CISC (Complex ISC) by carrying only those instructions most commonly used. CISC required ever more transistors to make each new generation of processor faster. In theory, RISC would still be going long after CISC chips became so overloaded that they wouldn't fit inside anything smaller than a shed.
Apple desired a launch date of January 24 - to mark the Mac's tenth anniversary - but compromised on March 14. PowerPC was based on IBM's Power technology for heavy-duty servers and industrial-strength workstations, so an early-1994 deadline was possible. The tricky thing was developing the Mac OS software that would run on the chips when they were ready.
Apple rejected the chance to entirely rebuild the Mac OS to run natively with the PowerPC chip, which would have dramatically increased software performance but wouldn't have run existing Mac software. Instead the OS was to be tweaked so that only the critical 10 per cent of code would be native, and the rest would be ancient 680x0 stuff.
The hero of the day was a brilliant software engineer called Gary Davidian, who successfully mixed the two types of code and developed it in such a way that older Mac software could run in emulation on the new chip.
The next big thing Apple needed was a bunch of applications that showed-off just how much faster the eventual Power Mac would be. Unfortunately, through a combination of Apple's ineptitude and technical arrogance, the company's plan to create a cross-platform framework for software development was a disaster. Luckily for all involved, a small company called Metrowerks saved the day.
Its CodeWarrior program revolutionized PowerPC application development. In a Montreal demo to Apple execs a Metrowerks employee started to build a program using Symantec's PowerPC recompiler. At the same time a colleague began travelling to the meeting from his home in Boston. He arrived there three hours and 15 minutes later, as the build using Symantec was still grinding away. One minute and 50 seconds later he'd finished his own build using CodeWarrior. Without CodeWarrior there wouldn't have been over a hundred PowerPC-optimized programs available within three months of the Power Mac's launch.
The arrival of PowerPC marked the real start of the Chip Wars that would quickly mutate into the Megahertz War. Apple, IBM and Motorola laid into Intel by demeaning its old-fashioned CISC architecture, claiming that RISC was the only way forward in the long term. At 1993's November Comdex show in Las Vegas, the forthcoming PowerPC blew away Intel's forthcoming Pentium in demonstrations. These Power Mac vs Pentium PC bake-off speed contests would be a familiar event at nearly every Macworld Expo since.
The first months of the PowerPC proved that the switch was vital to Apple's future. It was, as then Apple CEO Michael Spindler declared, a "quantum leap forward". Even Bill Gates appeared at the launch - although via an overhead screen to save him from the boos and tomatoes. Within the first two weeks of its March 14 launch, 145,000 Power Macs were sold. Apple shipped more personal computers in the US during the third quarter of 1994 than any other company, knocking Compaq off the top-spot.
It sold a million Power Macs in the first year.
The success of PowerPC didn't go as far as the 20 per cent market share that Apple had predicted - in fact it dropped a percentage point to 8.3, because Apple priced the systems too high despite the PowerPC then costing less than the Pentium. But it did at least keep Apple's core customer base onboard, and move Apple to a more competitive position in the PC market - one where the promise of IBM's next-generation, industrial-strength G5 shows real potential. Microsoft has reportedly dumped Intel for a G5 in the next generation of Xbox. Happy birthday, PowerPC - it looks like your time has finally come.