PowerPC is a RISC microprocessor architecture created by the 1991 Apple-IBM-Motorola alliance, known as AIM. The PowerPC was the CPU portion of the overall AIM platform, and is the only part to exist to this day.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Design features
3 Implementations
4 PowerPC processors
5 References


The history of the PowerPC begins with IBM's POWER architecture, introduced with the RISC System/6000 in early 1990. The design was inspired by earlier RISC processors such as IBM 801 and the MIPS architecture. The original POWER microprocessor, one of the first superscalar RISC implementations, was a high performance, multi-chip design. IBM soon realized that they would need a single-chip microprocessor to scale their RS/6000 line from lower-end to high-end machines, and work on a single-chip POWER microprocessor began. In early 1991 IBM realized that their design could potentially become a high-volume microprocessor used across the industry.

IBM approached Motorola with the goal of collaborating on the development of a family of single-chip microprocessors based on the POWER architecture. Soon after, Apple, as one of Motorola's largest customers of desktop-class microprocessors, joined the discussions. This three-way collaboration became known as AIM, for Apple, IBM, Motorola.

To Motorola, POWER looked like an unbelievable deal. It allowed them to sell a widely tested and powerful RISC CPU for little design cash on their own part. It also maintained ties with an important customer, Apple, and seemed to offer the possibility of adding another in IBM who might buy smaller versions from them instead of making their own.

At this point Motorola already had its own RISC design in the form of the 88000 which was doing poorly in the market. One oft-quoted reason for its failure was the lack of backward compatibility with their own famous 68000 series, also used in the Apple Macintosh.

However the 88000 was already in production, and Apple (among others) already had machines running on it. If the new POWER single-chip solution could be made somewhat comparable at a hardware level with the 88000, that would allow both Apple and Motorola to bring machines to market much faster.

The result of these various requirements was the PowerPC (Performance Computing) specification. Everyone seems to have won:

  • IBM got the single-chip CPU they were looking for, largely for free
  • Apple got to use one of the most powerful RISC CPU's on the market, and massive press buzz due to IBM's name
  • Motorola got an up-to-date RISC chip for free, one with the potential to allow them to sell to many companies, including both Apple and IBM

Design features

The PowerPC is designed along RISC principles, and allows for a superscalar implementation. Versions of the design exist in both 32-bit and 64-bit implementations. Starting with the basic POWER specification, the PowerPC added:

  • Support for operation in both Big- and Little-Endian modes (See note)
  • Single-precision forms of some floating point instructions, in addition to double-precision forms
  • Additional floating point instructions at the behest of Apple
  • A complete 64-bit specification, which is backward compatible with the 32-bit mode
  • Removal of some of the more esoteric POWER instructions, some of which could be emulated by the Operating System if necessary.


In Little-Endian mode, the three lowest-order bits of the effective address are exclusive-ORed with a three bit value selected by the length of the operand. This is not quite the same as being truly little-endian, and can cause problems when communicating with external devices.

In theory the byte order of the processor can be switched at run-time to support both Big- and Little-Endian programs simultaneously, and in fact it is possible to run a program in one mode and exception handlers (i.e. the operating system) in another. Practically speaking this would be difficult due to the interaction with external devices which have their own byte ordering.

An interesting side-effect of this implementation is that a program can store a 64-bit value (the longest operand format) to an address A while in one endian mode, switch modes, and when the value is read back from A it will be identical, even though ostensibly the processor is now in the opposite byte-order mode.


The first single-chip implementation of the design was the MPC601, a hybrid of the POWER1 and PowerPC specifications released in 1992. This allowed the chip to be used by IBM in their existing POWER1 based platforms, although it also meant some slight pain when switching to the 2nd generation "pure" PowerPC designs. Apple continued work on a new line of Macintosh computers based on the chip, and eventually released them as the 601-based Power Macintosh on March 14th 1994.

IBM also had a full line of PowerPC based desktops built and ready to ship; unfortunately they did not have an operating system ready. IBM decided to do a complete rewrite of OS/2 specifically for the PowerPC. Apple, who also lacked a PowerPC based OS, took a different route. They rewrote the essential pieces of the operating system and then wrote a 680x0 emulator which could run the remaining parts of the OS and 68K based applications. It took IBM 2 years to rewrite OS/2 for PowerPC and by then it was too late. The IBM PowerPC desktops never shipped. Byte magazine (April 1994) wrote an extensive article about the Apple and IBM PowerPC desktops.

The second generation was "pure" and included the "low end" 603 and "high end" 604. The 603 is notable due to its very low cost and power consumption. This was a deliberate design goal on Motorola's part, who used the 603 project to build the basic core for all future generations of PPC chips. Apple tried to use the 603 in a new laptop design but was unable to due to the small 8KB level 1 cache. The 68000 emulator in the Mac OS could not fit in 8KB and thus slowed the computer drastically. The 603e solved this problem by having a 16KB L1 cache which alowed the emulator to run efficiently.

The first 64-bit implementation was the 620, but it appears to have seen little use. It was later and slower than promised, and IBM used their own POWER3 design instead, offering no 64-bit "small" solution until the late-2002 introduction of the PowerPC 970. The 970 is a 64-bit processor derived from the POWER4 server processor. To create it, the POWER4 core was modified to be backwards-compatible with 32-bit PowerPC processors, and a vector unit (similar to the AltiVec extensions in Motorola's 74xx series) was added.

IBM's RS64 family is a modified PowerPC architecture. These processors are used in the RS/6000 and AS/400 computer families.

Numerically, the PowerPC is most found in controllers in cars. In this role, Motorola has offered up a huge number of versions built on the 603 core. To this they add various bits of custom hardware, to allow for I/O on the single chip.

PowerPC processors are used in Apple Macintosh, IBM RS/6000 computer, the Pegasos (an Amiga spin off), Amiga acceleration boards, the Nintendo GameCube, and many embedded systems such as TiVo.

PowerPC processors


  • Cathy May et al. (editor); The PowerPC Architecture: A Specification for A New Family of RISC Processors; Morgan Kaufmann Publishers; ISBN 1-55860-316-6 (Second Edition, 1994)
  • Programming Envrionments Manual for 32-bit Implementations of the PowerPC Architecture; Motorola; P/N MPCFPE32B/AD
  • Steve Hoxey et al. (editor); The PowerPC Compiler Writer's Guide; Warthman Associates; ISBN 0-9649654-0-2