Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Apple in Parallel: Turning the PC World Upside Down?

Steve JobsSteven P. Jobs, chief executive of Apple, at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday. (Credit: Kimberly White/Reuters)

(Updated with more information at 1:45 p.m. EDT)

(Corrected OpenCL definition at 10:05 p.m. EDT)

At the outset of his presentation at the opening session of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Steve Jobs showed a slide of a stool with three legs to describe the company’s businesses: Macintosh, music and the iPhone.

The company is making another bet on parallelism, and the implications may be more profound than anyone yet realizes.

In describing the next version of the Mac OS X operating system, dubbed Snow Leopard, Mr. Jobs said Apple would focus principally on technology for the next generation of the industry’s increasingly parallel computer processors.

Today the personal computer industry is going through a wrenching change in trying to find a way to keep up with the speed increases that were the hallmark of the PC business until about five years ago. At that point, companies like Intel, I.B.M. and AMD had simply lived off their continual ability to increase the clock speeds of their microprocessors. But the industry hit a wall as chips reached the melting point.

As a consequence, the industry shifted gears and began making lower-power processors that added multiple C.P.U.’s. The idea was to gain speed by breaking up problems into multiple pieces and computing the parts simultaneously.

The problem is that, having headed down that path, the industry is now admitting that it doesn’t know how to program the new parallel chips efficiently when the number of cores goes above a handful.

On Monday, Mr. Jobs claimed that Apple is coming to the rescue.

“We’ve added over a thousand features to Mac OS X in the last five years,” he said Monday in an interview after his presentation. “We’re going to hit the pause button on new features.”

Instead, the company is going to focus on what he called “foundational features” that will be the basis for a future version of the operating system.

“The way the processor industry is going is to add more and more cores, but nobody knows how to program those things,” he said. “I mean, two, yeah; four, not really; eight, forget it.”

Apple, he claimed, has made a parallel-programming breakthrough.

It is all about the software, he said. Apple purchased a chip company, PA Semi, in April, but the heart of Snow Leopard will be about a parallel-programming technology that the company has code-named Grand Central.

“PA Semi is going to do system-on-chips for iPhones and iPods,” he said.

Grand Central will be at the heart of Snow Leopard, he said, and the shift in technology direction raises lots of fascinating questions, including what will happen to Apple’s partnership with Intel.

ADDED: Snow Leopard will also tap the computing power inherent in the graphics processors that are now used in tandem with microprocessors in almost all personal and mobile computers. Mr. Jobs described a new processing standard that Apple is proposing called OpenCL (Open Compute LibraryComputing Language) which is intended to refocus graphics processors on standard computing functions.

“Basically it lets you use graphics processors to do computation,” he said. “It’s way beyond what Nvidia or anyone else has, and it’s really simple.”

Since Intel trails both Nvidia and AMD’s ATI graphics processor division, it may mean that future Apple computers will look very different in terms of hardware.

Just this week, for example, a Los Alamos National Laboratory set the world supercomputer processing speed record. The machine was based largely on a fleet of more than 12,000 I.B.M. Cell processors, originally designed for the Sony PS3 video-game machine.

If Apple can use similar chips to power its future computers, it will change the computer industry

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