What happened to RISC processors?

Yesterday I had a pretty nice conversation with a colleague at work about the NeXT computer and why it has been so revolutionary. Not many people know but HTML has been invented on such a NeXT workstation in the CERN research facility. It also has been the first web-server of the world wide web with a nice “don’t tun off” sticker that is common even today (at least in the company I work at there are some Mac Pro machines in the London office that are dedicated servers – of course we have server farms with tons of server-racks but, yea there are still the “don’t turn off” sticker servers around). So why has it been so far ahead of time? First there is the OS… a true multi-tasking OS with features like the dock (just recently copied by Microsoft in Windows 7 and an essential part of OS X). It was really impressive! Second is for sure the hardware that included a magneto-optical drive as a floppy disk replacement (similar to a portable hard-drive or CD-RW). At that time people had 5,25″ and 3,5″ drives that couldn’t compare to what the NeXT introduced.

Not sure why but I associate the NeXT with the time when RISC came up… although it never had a RISC processor (it ran on Motorola’s CISC 68030 and later the 68040 CPU) there have been plans to build a RISC based NeXT workstation: http://simson.net/ref/NeXT/nextworld/94.4/94.4.Apr.PA-RISC1.html Probably they would have released it at some point if Apple didn’t buy the them (Steve Jobs has been fired around 1984 from Apple and founded NeXT after that)

So what happened to the promising RISC technology? Well… it has been many years in Macs as the PowerPC G3, G4 and G5 processor. So Mac OS X (basically the successor of NeXTStep OS) ran on RISC for many years and is back now where it started, on a CISC processor but now built by Intel. Is the RISC-age really over now that PowerPC is history? The latest Mac OS X version doesn’t even work on PowerPC Macs. Not entirely sure if it’s over but devices like the Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming console run an IBM Xenon CPU or the recently released Apple iPad with the A4 ARM CPU are all RISC.

There are voices that say that after multi-core the next thing will be to focus on RISC (again) to gain speed without toasting the CPU with clock-ranges above 3-4 GHz: http://www.informit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=663085&seqNum=3

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2 Comments

  1. I know a handful of people who worked at NeXT, including Pat Crecine and Dan’l Lewin. The all gushed about their time at the company and still stay in close contact with each other. It was an amazing system, built by amazing people.

    • Funny. Dan’l Lewin works now for MS.


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