Today, the chips that power all Apple products have multiple processor cores that are capable of performing work in parallel. The iPhone 11 has six. The IMac Pro has eight.
But there was a time when the only Mac that supported multiprocessing was not a Mac at all, but an extremely expensive workstation from a small town in northeast Georgia. Do not call it a clone. It was much, much more than that.
We refer to the era of Apple’s unsuccessful attempts to license Mac OS to external hardware companies such as the “Mac clone era,” but that word—clone—Can give the wrong impression. If you did not live through the mid-90s as a Mac user, you can assume that there was a time when Apple cultivated the hardware design of a bunch of boring PC clones that undercut Apple’s Mac prices with a series of overwhelming, mediocre knockoffs .
But that’s not entirely true, because there was a lot of innovation in the Mac clone world. Power Computing was probably the most well-known Mac clone maker, but the biggest single innovation of all the Mac clones came from an unknown place: Flowery Branch, Georgia, a small town northeast of Atlanta that now serves as the Atlanta Falcons’ summer training camp.
Flowery Branch was home to DayStar Digital, a company that made upgrades for Macs focused on turning the fastest speeds out of available hardware. As a result, the company was joined by people who desperately needed as much power as they could get – professionals in the graphics and video industry.
When Apple announced that it would license Mac OS to other PC makers, DayStar focused its business on converting from a high-end upgrade maker for Apple-built Macs to a high-end Mac maker. clones. DayStars clone was Genesis MP, and MP stood for multiple treatment. It was the very first Mac to combine the work of several processors towards a common goal.
The problem: Classic Mac OS was not built for multiple processor cores. The operating system knew about the processor, and it used it, and that was it. But the engineers at DayStar had been working on something new for their high-end audience.
The Power Macs stored the processor during this period on a removable computer card, which allowed companies like DayStar to sell upgrades that allow the user to replace a slower processor with a faster one without replacing the entire system. And DayStar began designing a daughter card with not one, but two PowerPC chips on it. The PowerPC architecture was designed with support for multi-processor, even though Mac OS did not support it, and even though there were limitations in the first PowerPC chip designs that made multi-processing support a much tougher nut to crack. DayStar engineer David Sowell built a processing core that let the Mac address the other processor directly, and DayStar labeled it all as “nPower.”
Then two important events happened: Apple announced that it would license Mac OS to clone manufacturers, and IBM and Motorola announced the PowerPC 604 chip, which supported multi-processing. It was at this point that DayStar focused on the Genesis MP and DayStar MP Library system extension, which allowed individual apps to prepare tasks for the second processor while most of the Mac OS ran on the first.
Not surprisingly, Photoshop was the first app to support Mac processing, via an MP extension for Photoshop 3.0.4. And it worked: Genesis MP was 2.5 times as fast as a Power Mac 9500/132, according to MacUser magazine tests.
All this power and innovation came, by design, at a steep price. Genesis MP started at $ 10,000, and the price went up from there. You can see why DayStar felt it was the perfect clone maker at the moment: Everything about DayStar’s stuff pushed the hardware to the extreme in favor of the advanced market. DayStar customers wanted the fastest graphics cards, the most RAM, and why only use one processor when you could have two? Or four?
The DayStar MP library was so successful that Apple integrated it into the Mac OS itself in 1996. Apple wanted to create its own processor systems, and DayStar had already done the work. The first multi-processor Mac was the Power Mac 9500/180 MP. Former Daystar CEO Andrew Lewis told me that the dual-processor computer card for that Mac model was actually designed for Apple by DayStar Digital. (And Apple did not care about a four-processor model at all, leaving the market to DayStar.)
Unfortunately, while the DayStar MP library contributed a key feature to the Mac OS, DayStar Digital did not pay to become a clone maker for the exclusive Mac market. Steve Jobs returned to power at Apple, DayStar Digital had focused its entire business on DayStar MP, and when Jobs killed the clone licensing program, the end was inevitable. DayStar sold off its remaining supply of Genesis MPs and largely shut down.
And yet, DayStar’s legacy lives on. As I researched the story, I looked for references to DayStar Digital, and some strange header files from old installations of Xcode and OS X appeared. And there it was, common as day:
Fourteen years after everything went down, long after the company itself had faded away, DayStar Digital was still in there. Its contribution forgotten, perhaps – but not gone.
I’ll be back next week with number 14.
If you appreciate articles like this, you can support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories and a special community.