The Rumor Mill

The OS X on Alpha Project

- 2000.10.16

I received an email from my old friend and not-quite-inside contact Ralph Phelan a while back. I've been trying to determine the truth of this rumor, but since all our inside contacts are named "John Doe" and Apple has recently been plucking John Does from the Apple tree, we have no way of doing so.

Thus, we present yet another seemingly groundless rumor - our favorite kind!

I was having lunch with an acquaintance in Cupertino recently, and we visited his office afterwards. I saw something that really surprised me. It was a battered old rack-mount Compaq computer hooked up to a Studio Display. He passed it off as a leftover from the canceled "Mac on Pentium" (a.k.a. "Star Trek") project, but he looked like he was hiding something.

I noticed a Photoshop file on the Aqua desktop labeled "Steve's Demo," so I grabbed the mouse and double clicked it before he even knew what I was up to. Sure enough, it was the demo from Macworld. It finished in about 25 seconds! I was floored.

I started asking him what kind of overclocked chip he had in there, and whether all that stuff about Power PCs being faster than Pentia was just a bunch of hooey, and was generally babbling, when he had mercy on me and told me what was going on. Though, as he pointed out, I could have figured it out for myself by looking up that model of Compaq on the Web.

The answers I got were:

  1. The CPU was running at the 300 MHz it was designed for.
  2. It's not a Pentium, it's an Alpha.

The way he put it was this: "The Megahertz gap is a real problem. But going over to some 8086-derived chip is not the answer. Since 1984, we've always had better chips than the IBM-compatibles, and we're going to keep it that way."

I asked about clone manufacturers, but he wasn't worried. "You'll need an Apple ROM to run Mac OS X. If someone wants to make clones, we'll be happy to sell them ROMs for $500 a pop."

He let me play with his machine for a while, which was my first real experience with OS X. I noticed one thing missing - no OS 9 mode! That's the reason they're keeping this under wraps for now - they have to wait until OS X has been out for a while and there are a decent number of native applications for it before they release a machine that won't run legacy PowerPC or 68k apps.

Because the machine he's using was originally built as a server, it has all sorts of cool features, like a fibre-channel card. I found out about that when I was playing with the new Chooser (or whatever they're calling it now). AppleTalk over optical fibre - what a hoot!

That's when he told me about the other one he's got. It's a much newer server, with four 750 MHz Alpha chips. I wanted to see it in action, but he said it was in some exec's office while they evaluated it. "I can't tell you who, but I'll give you a clue: it takes a lot of fans to cool four Alpha chips, and he keeps on bitching about the noise they make."

I got to thinking about all the cool things you could do with machines like that. At one point I said something about "Quad Alphas, fibre channel communications - just imagine an Appleseed cluster of those."

That's when he turned white, looked over his shoulder nervously, and threw me out of the building.

For those who haven't been paying attention, Compaq bought Digital some years back and now owns the Alpha, which was the first high powered RISK processor for Windows computers. Compaq is also trying to distance itself from Microsoft, so they need something besides Unix, Linux, and Windows NT on the Alpha.

Is the rumor credible? A couple years ago, I would have dismissed it out of hand. The G3 easily outperformed the Alpha back then. But Motorola still seems stuck at 500 MHz - unless you believe their hooey about actually being able to ship a 1 GHz CPU before Microsoft completes Windows 2003 or Intel breaks the 3 GHz mark.

Still, we suspect Compaq will be smart enough to license the Apple ROMs in exchange for Apple being able to design new hardware and recompile OS X for the Alpha.

Probably the only requirement is that any Compaq machine running OS X on Alpha must have fans. ;-)

- Anne Onymus

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