The consequences of the end of Mac cloning: Apple and Motorola fall out

Back in the era of Mac cloning I was a reporter (and then news editor) on MacUser, which meant that I spent a lot of time talking to Apple, cloners, and miscellaneous manufacturers. Because Britons are incredible gossips, it gave me a pretty interesting perspective on what went on.

We got to see pre-production machines, enjoyed leaks from chip companies which let us know what Apple and the rest were up to long before anyone else, and much more. For a news reporter in the tech industry, it was a very happy time indeed.

That’s perhaps why I have a very different perspective on the era from some modern Mac users. I remember, for example, just how popular with Mac fans Power Computing was. Apple was able to do its “fighting back for the Mac ads because it was the only Mac maker attempting to compete with PC companies on performance, at a time when Apple was avoiding the word “speed” like the plague.

Power’s slogans like “Let’s kick Wintel’s ass!” were, unsurprisingly, hugely popular with Mac fans who had been forced to hear Windows-using friends crow about the performance they were getting from their machine, which cost 30% less than the equivalent Mac. Apple was, to use the word of the time, “beleagured”. Power had balls, and made you feel good to be a Mac user. Apple’s marketing at the time, definitely didn’t.

Despite its loud voice, though, Power Computing never really made a big impact on Apple. The reason that it was able to release machines before Apple which used higher-specced PowerPC’s than the bigger company was down to a quirk of chip making. Processors tend to initially trickle out of a chip maker, which means that initial availability is quite low. Because of this, a company like Apple, which requires hundreds of thousands of processors to meet the initial demand for new machines, has to wait until supplies have ramped up high enough to meet this demand.

Power wasn’t selling hundreds of thousands of machines, so it didn’t have to wait. It could buy an early order for a hot chip for, say, 10,000 – a number that Motorola or IBM could easily meet. Ironically, Power’s competitive advantage came from being small and not actually selling that many machines.

But Power wasn’t really the issue: Motorola, which had begun making Macs with its StarMax series, was a very different kettle of fish. At the time, Motorola was a huge company, bigger than Apple. Unlike the noisier Power Computing, Motorola was a serious competitor.

And that’s what Motorola proved with the StarMax 6000, the greatest Mac never sold. At MacUser, we had the first (and, I think, only) review of the 6000, which used the Common Hardware Reference Platform (CHRP) motherboard and the brand-new PowerPC 750 (G3) processor, clocked at a then-whopping 300MHz. It screamed. It was, as I remember, much, much faster than Apple’s fastest Power Mac, which used the 604e, and cost less. When we eventually benchmarked the Power Mac G3, it was slower than the 6000, by around 10% – and this was machine that was released months after the 6000 would have been.

And given that Motorola was making the PowerPC 750, I doubt it would have had problems getting enough chips to meet whatever demand there was.

It’s possibly no coincidence that the StarMax 6000 was never released: Apple killed the clone programme while we had the machine in the labs, just weeks before its launch. As I’ve said before, Apple’s machines at the time were crap: the StarMax 6000 was outstanding. Which one would you have bought? The answer for most pro customers would have been obvious – and it was probably obvious to Apple, too.

Motorola had known the StarMax 6000 was going to be a success. It had, from what its employees told me, around $100 million’s worth of machines in the warehouse, ready to go. And when Apple killed the clone programme, those $100 million’s worth of the fastest Macs in the world ended up as landfill, with a massive write-off on Motorola’s books.

To say that Chris Galvin, Motorola’s CEO, was pretty unimpressed by this sudden move would be understating it. According to more than one Motorola employee I spoke to at the time, he was furious.

And Apple’s relationship with Motorola was never quite the same afterwards. Motorola, along with almost everyone else in the Mac market at that point, believed that licensing Mac OS was the only way for the market to grow. Apple, after all, had been caught in a pattern of declining market share and, sometimes, actual declining sales numbers.

Without the licensing programme, Motorola believed, the chances of growth in Mac sales – and hence, PowerPC sales – was minimal. So the company began to change the focus of its PowerPC business away from mainly servicing Apple and towards concentrating its resources on making PowerPC a leading player in the embedded processor market.

This lead indirectly to its later inability to supply the ever-faster processors which Apple needed, which, in turn, lead Apple towards IBM PowerPC’s… and ultimately to Intel. It’s probably no coincidence that the start of “Marklar“, the top secret programme to port Mac OS X to Intel, began not long after the relationship with Motorola turned sour.

When the final history of the Mac OS licensing experiment comes to be written, it will be a complex story. But it’s fair to say that pulling the plug on licensing was perhaps the defining moment of Apple’s history, post Steve Jobs’ return. It not only ensured that no one could compete with Apple within its own market, but, I believe, contributed to the events which would see the Mac move to Intel.

It also sent a very strong signal about Apple’s future direction: “We are not a computer company, or a software company – we are Apple, and we are unique. Normal rules of business do not apply.”

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