Okay, at first we thought it was just us, but now it's clear that the rest of the Apple-watching public is also still obsessed with the concept of a new handheld computer springing forth from Cupertino. Case in point: IBM announces some new chip technology, states that it'll show up in an Apple "portable device" sometime this year, and suddenly there's a flood of speculation that, despite Phil Schiller's public denial, this new "portable device" is the mythical Apple PDA. See? That interpretation never even occurred to us, which means that on the distribution graph of Handheld Wackies, we actually fall somewhat to the left of the far right of the bell curve. Who knew?
In fact, we had pretty much responded to IBM's announcement with a noncommittal grunt, since we'd heard them talking about this technology ages ago and it's only just now turned into a commercial reality. The idea is this: take a layer of silicon. Slap it onto a layer of insulation. Stick the result under a chip's transistors, and voilà-- you've got a processor using one of the least interestingly-named technologies to emerge from the semiconductor industry in months: "silicon-on-insulator." (And here we thought they were talking about the hot new sandwich at the Carnegie Deli-- "Gimme a silicon on insulator, toasted, hold the mustard.")
Faithful viewer James Lindley shuttled us over to a MacWEEK article which summarizes SOI's benefits. The insulation apparently reduces current leakage, meaning the transistors need to be fed less power to function properly. The upshot? A "25 to 35 percent performance improvement," not to mention the fact that lower power consumption means longer battery life in portables, as well as the ability to use processors in laptops that previously ran too hot to be practical.
Now, that's all great. But when IBM's spokesperson said that SOI-enhanced chips would be used in an Apple "portable device" this year, we just figured he meant "PowerBook." After all, SOI is just what the doctor ordered to let Apple cram the supercomputer G4 into a toteworthy laptop. While we certainly haven't written off the possibility of an Apple handheld device, we doubt SOI has anything to do with it; the technology is expensive, and therefore unlikely to appear in a cheap and consumer-oriented device. So unless Apple's planning a $1000 PDA (no Newton cracks!), SOI's merely the key to this fall's increasingly-likely PowerBook G4. (By the way, other than the chips used in IBM's high-end AS/400 servers, PowerPC chips for Apple are the only processors likely to benefit from SOI for a while. Take that, Chipzilla!)