OSS waves PPC goodbye as old Macs turn paperweights

If you have an old PowerPC based Mac, the time to move is now, as software developers are dropping support of the platform left and right. And the future doesn’t look too bright for newer Power-architecture systems, as ARM seems to be where the action is at, from set top boxes to full blown PCs.

What was once seen as a microprocessor platform that could eclipse the x86 dominance, the PowerPC architecture seems to be losing whatever attractive qualities it might have had. Granted, PPC is alive and kicking inside popular game consoles, but outside of that niche acquired years ago, and others like communications and automotive, the chances of having a Power Architecture CPU at home seem to be diminishing rapidly.

In this report, we’ll use PowerPC and Power Architecture brands interchangeably, although we know this makes Power.org marketing people quite mad.

2010: the year PowerPC Macs became total paperweights

Recently, several software developers have started dropping support for the PowerPC Macs, which only makes sense as the last OS from the fruity white computer manufacturer to support PowerPC processors was OS X “Leopard”, released in 2007.  This hasn’t prevented the church of Apple worshippers from clinging onto their slow and ageing – but surely perfectly functioning and beautiful – PowerPC Macs.

Google gave PowerPC based Mac users the finger two years ago when it released its video chat feature and explicitly left off PowerPC based Mac users. Some die-hard PowerPC fans are still complaining, even to this day. How dare they!.  

Days ago, game developers Blizzard and also Basilisk Games announced that they were dropping PowerPC support. Blizzard said: “Shortly before the release of Cataclysm, a patch will be released in which PowerPC processor based Macs will no longer be supported.”

Basilisk developers said: “It is becoming impossible to compile our games on the PowerPC Mac due to lack of support from other software providers. Technology marches on and the sun has set on the Macintosh PowerPC architecture, at least for us.”  The firm ended its missive with a farewell message: “To the PowerPC processor that made the Mac what it is today, we salute you!.”

Opera software also announced it will be dropping PowerPC support, with reports indicating that “the 10.6x branch will be the last release with support for the processor PowerPC architecture” and quoting Opera Developer Daniel Aleksandersen, who said: “Only 0.1% of Opera users still use PowerPC-based systems.”

The last blow came from the Mozarella Foundation, which also plans to wave PowerPC users goodbye.

These events remind us that besides IBM handing the niche to Freescale, it was Apple’s switch away from the PPC platform what gave the architecture the most severe blow, in terms of mind share.

PowerPC Linux going the way of the Dodo

One could think that software developers’ lack of enthusiasm for the PPC platform is restricted to commercial Mac software vendors, but that would be wrong.

 Some in the Open Source world seem to be waving the PowerPC goodbye. Earlier this year, when the RedHat-sponsored  Fedora community released version 13, PowerPC users were dismayed to find that support for their beloved CPU marchitecture had been dropped.

As such, PPC systems need to keep running Fedora version 12, and after that version is no longer maintained, well, users are on their own if they want to port current Fedora versions to the PPC platform.

And Fedora has been pretty loyal to the platform, maintaining support until May this year. Ubuntu dropped its official PowerPC architecture support a long time ago

 An article on LWN.net a couple months back admits:  “The number of Linux distributions that officially support this platform is diminishing year by year.” Ouch, seems Freescale will have a hard time selling its Power family of processors (PDF) outside the existing embedded  niches like the automotive market. 

Last year, a firm dubbed “Mentor Graphics” trumpeted the porting of Google’s Android operating system to the PowerPC platform. Now, about one year later, one does a web search for “powerpc tablet” on Google’s product search engine and… nothing of relevance turns up.

There were a couple of adventurous firms which released PPC-based general computing systems: last year we spotted the LimeBook netbook running on a Freescale PPC CPU. A similar 8.9-inch display netbook system – very similar if not the same reference design – is now selling in South Africa under the “LinkBook” name, where it is practically given away for $25 with a two-year 3G mobile internet service contract.

That’s two that this scribbler knows about. Doesn’t seem like there’s a rush to the PPC. Both of these systems ship with a custom Linux OS, by the way.

If you want more proof that ARM – and probably, MIPS – is where the action is at, look no further than Freescale. Earlier this year the firm released a tablet reference design using an ARM based CPU, not Power.

While all this happens, Linux on ARM is getting better, not harder to find. Trident and ARM are collaborating to optimise open source software like Qt and WebKit for Set Top Boxes based on ARM’s  platform.

Adobe has been optimising its Flash player and Sun/Oracle offers ARM optimised builds. While ARM announced its Cortex A15 and touted the platform’s availability of Flash, Java SE, JavaFX, Ubuntu and Android support, the Chinese firm NuFront is about to sell a $250 desktop PC running ARM, not Power.

Power.org awakens and wants to promote its platform

It seems the boffins at Power.org  are feeling the pressure. Maciej Bajkowski at ChipCrunch writes a nice artiicle outlining several of the Power Architecture roadmaps and Power.org’s reaction to all the buzz around ARM.  

Bajkowski says: “With all this x86 vs. ARM talk, it is really not surprising that the PowerPC guys via Power.org decided to go on the offensive”. So what did Power.org do? Release updated roadmaps!  

However, he wonders aloud if this will be enough to make the Power architecture a conversational topic once again: “Will all of this help Power.org make the Power architecture more of a conversation topic? Only time will tell. “

We asked IBM’s Brad Frey who sits as advisor on the Power architecture board  for his thoughts, and we’re sure he will have something to say after reading this piece. Stay tuned.

Not dead, just niche, and unpopular

It’d be wrong to conclude that Power architecture is dead in the water, Power excels for networking and raw computation, for instance, so it’s got a pretty firm niche in embedded in military applications. Take for instance the XPedite5430 from Extreme Engineering Solutions. It’s geared towards the networking and military applications, and features a Freescale P4080 processor with eight 1.5-GHz Power Architecture e500 cores. 

But on the low-end things don’t look so bright. Four years ago this scribbler reviewed Buffalo’s impressive Gigabit Linkstation. It ran Linux on a PowerPC CPU. Current NAS appliances by Buffalo, like the Terastation now run on… yes, ARM. So it’s undeniable that it’s feeling the heat, not only from ARM on the consumer market , but now also by Intel.

We decided to ask someone in the know in the consumer sector to see if indeed ARM was trouncing everyone. We ran into “video thumbnail inventor”  and software developer Vladimir Pantelic – who works at tablet designer firm Archos, and he told us his personal opinion:

“Like every other SOC vendor that once had his own embedded CPU variant (Super-H, Mips, NEC, ST) Freescale is going ARM. I held a Freescale tablet reference design in my hands just last week, but of course it was ARM based.” he told us.

Pantelic also cited another Freescale ARM based tablet, the French QOOQ which runs on the ARM-based Freescale i.MX37 .

He concluded by pointing out: “This trend towards the ARM marchitecture has started since Android redefined the “mimimum” SOC as being ARM Cortex-A8, HW-video decoder and a 3D unit”. 

So, judging by his words and all of the above about the diminishing software support for the platform, yes, it looks like Power.org better release something more attractive than updated roadmaps. That’s if it wants to bring back some buzz and activity to its platform, and keep any mind share in the process.