It weighs about seven pounds and costs $12,000. Yet the notebook-sized computer that IBM unveiled yesterday is roughly as powerful as the first Cray Supercomputer, a million-dollar, Buick-sized monster that awed the world more than a decade ago.
IBM is calling it the world's first "workstation" notebook, an allusion to the burly desktop machines typically used by scientists and engineers for heavy-duty computational tasks such as computer-aided design and modeling. The Armonk, N.Y.-based company said the machine, which will run UNIX software, will be in stores March 25.
While the notebook computer establishes a new benchmark in the history of computing -- allowing engineers to take their most powerful tools into the field -- it's the tiny chip inside that's causing all the commotion: The PowerPC, a new, faster generation of computer chips jointly developed by IBM, Motorola Inc. and Apple Computer, promises to spur competition to build exponentially more powerful, and cheaper, computers.
The chip, which will start selling in Apple home computers next week, and later in IBM's and others, challenges the dominance of Intel Corp., whose microprocessors are currently in all IBM and most IBM-compatible computers.
And that means that consumers should benefit from sharply falling PC prices, faster technology and new applications as the world's biggest computer makers go head to head to capture the lucrative home market.
Yesterday, in fact, Intel unexpectedly introduced its second generation of the Pentium chip, a 100-megahertz microprocessor that the company claims will run more than twice as fast as the first, 66-megahertz Pentium. It should also run faster than the PowerPC, the company says. But by the end of the year, a newer PowerPC will be out that's supposed to be twice as fast as the fastest Intel chip, IBM and Motorola say.
The first Pentium chip is hardly a year old, illustrating what has become a dictum describing the rapid leapfrogging of technology in the computer business: Every 12 to 18 months, microprocessors double in speed or halve in price.
"I see no end in sight," said Tom Arthur, manager of IBM's notebook/workstation project. "Watch this space. This technology will end up in lots of products, doing lots of things, with no real restrictions on where it's getting applied."
The desktop computers that use the PowerPC chip will start at $2,000, while the new Pentium-based machines will start at $2,400.
The Apple-IBM-Motorola alliance used a radically different approach to laying out its chip, using a standard called Reduced Instruction Set Computer.
Simply, RISC chips are stripped-down chips that shift much of the computational burden from hardware to software. That makes RISC chips potentially faster and definitely cheaper than CISC (complex-instruction set) chips, such as the Pentium.
While the potential payoff is huge -- the three companies stand to make significant inroads in Intel's territory -- many analysts believe the risks are significant as well.
For one thing, as Apple starts putting PowerPC chips into all its computers, new software must be written to take advantage of the new design. (Older Apple software will still run on the machines, but not at the faster speeds.)
IBM, which last month announced it would no longer manufacture Pentium chips under license from Intel so it could concentrate all its resources on the PowerPC, could lose if the PowerPC fails to catch on.
IBM will still manufacture the slower, 486-based Intel-licensed chips for half its personal computer line.
On the up side, IBM will save money by making its own chips without paying licensing fees to Intel. Apple will see competition from its chip suppliers, which should mean lower supply costs.