The Future of Mac Apps: Universal Binary

Just like Appleis transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X required new versions of the applications we use every day, the transition to Intel-based Macs is forcing developers to update their code once again. Apple is doing its best to make that transition as painless as possible for developers and end-users alike through a new type of application type called Universal Binary (UB). A UB application contains the necessary code to run natively on a PowerPC-based Mac as well as an Intel-based Mac, like the new iMac or MacBook Pro.

Apple announced at its World Wide Developeris Conference in spring of 2005 that is was going to start moving the Mac to Intel processors by June of 2006, but surprised us earlier this month at Macworld Expo by shipping an Intel-based iMac nearly six months ahead of schedule. The MacBook Pro, Appleis Intel-based replacement for the PowerBook G4, is slated to ship in February, and Steve Jobs committed to transitioning the rest of the Mac line-up by the end of the year.

The good news is that users can get faster, more powerful Macs in their hands far earlier than expected. The bad news is that many developers werenit ready for the quick release, and donit have their applications ready to go.

For the applications that arenit already converted to UB, most will run on the new Macs thanks to Rosetta, Appleis PowerPC emulator software. You may see a performance hit until your favorite applications are updated, but at least they will work. Unfortunately, Rosetta does not emulate the Altivec co-processor found in the G4 and G5 Macs, and many professional-level applications, like Adobe Photoshop, rely on it to perform some of of their tasks. Some applications, however, rely so heavily on the PowerPC hardware Apple has been using for the past few years that they wonit even work at all.

As more Intel-based iMacs make it into the wild, and users start running PowerPC-based applications on them, weill be able to develop a better picture of where potential problems may be. The ideal situation, of course, is to run UB versions, and ultimately Intel-native versions of the applications.

Until then, we can at least keep track of which companies have updated their product lines to run natively on Intel-based Macs. Apple keeps a fairly extensive list of UB applications on its Web site, and TMOis Universal Binary Special Report is chock-full of articles about companies that are updating their applications.

So, where does that leave the early Intel adopter? Read on for the low-down on some of the more popular Mac apps.

Of all the software vendors, Apple is in the best position to be on top of the Intel transition, since itis the company that makes the Mac. For the most part, Apple was ready to roll out Universal Binary versions of its software at Macworld Expo in January, but for those applications that arenit ready yet, Rosetta isnit even an option.

The latest version of Tiger, Mac OS X 10.4.4, is both PowerPC and Intel-based Mac compatible, as are the new iLife 06 and iWork 06 applications. The iLife suite includes iMovie HD 6, iPhoto 6, iDVD 6, and GarageBand 3, iWeb; the iWork suite includes Keynote 3, and Pages 2. Most of Appleis other applications, including QuickTime, iTunes, Safari and Mail are Universal Binaries, as well.

Appleis pro-level applications, on the other hand, are a different story. Final Cut Pro 5, Motion 2, Soundtrack Pro, DVD Studio Pro 4, Aperture, Logic Pro 7, Logic Express 7, Shake and Final Cut Express HD require a PowerPC-based Mac, and are not Rosetta compatible. The Intel compatible versions of these applications should be available by March 31, about a month after the MacBook Pro ships.

Apple is offering a US$49 cross-grade program for Final Cut Studio and Logic Pro, or $29 for Logic Express. As an added incentive to upgrade, it is also offering Final Cut Studio to Final Cut Pro 5 users for $99, or $199 if you own DVD Studio Pro 4, Motion 2, or Soundtrack Pro. The upgrade for Aperture will be free.

The upside is that Microsoft publicly committed to a five-year agreement with Apple to continue developing and supporting Office for the Macintosh. The downside is that it did not explicitly state when Universal Binary versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage will be available. Based on early reports, however, that shouldnit be a big problem. The Office applications seem to be running just fine in Rosetta.

Virtual PC 7, on the other hand, is not Rosetta compatible, and will not run on Intel-based Macs in its current state. There is no word yet on when a Universal Binary version will be available. Roz Ho, general manager of Microsoftis Macintosh Business Unit, commented "Weire working with Apple to figure out the best way to bring this technology to Intel-based Macs. Weill have a better idea once we have the new machines and can accurately evaluate just what is required to transition the product."

Adobeis bread-and-butter product line up, the Creative Suite 2 (CS2), includes InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, GoLive, and Acrobat, and none are Universal Binary yet. Early reports indicate that the Creative Suite applications are working in Rosetta. Since Rosetta does not emulate the PowerPCis Altivec co-processor, you may see occasional problems where specific filters or plug-ins fail to function correctly.

An Adobe spokesperson informed TMO that the company is excited about Appleis transition to Intel processors, and is "Committed to develop software for the new platform, with future versions of Adobe Creative Suite supporting both PowerPC- and Intel-based systems."

The spokesperson added "Adobe is moving forward with transition plans for other Macintosh products, beginning with Lightroom -- where we plan to include support for Appleis new Intel-based products in an upcoming update to our public beta."

As far as Rosetta compatibility is concerned, Adobe confirmed that it is testing the current suite of CS2 apps, and will post the results on its Web site in the next few weeks.

Macromediais products, now a part of Adobe thanks to a buy-out in early December, are undergoing the same rewrite and testing regiment. Those applications, which include in part Flash Professional 8, Dreamweaver 8, and Fireworks 8, are already being sold as parts of other Adobe product bundles.

QuarkXPress 6.5 is not Universal Binary, but QuarkXPress 7 will be. QuarkXPress 7, currently in a public beta testing phase through March 31, will ship in the second quarter of this year.

So far, there arenit any reports of problems using QuarkXPress 6.5 in Rosetta.

The FileMaker 8 product line is not yet Universal Binary, but there are no reports of major incompatibilities with Rosetta, so we should be able to continue using FileMaker products as is until Intel ready versions are available. Since FileMaker is owned by Apple, it stands to reason that UB versions are in the works.

Disk Utilities
All of the disk utilities we rely on, including DiskWarrior, TechTool Pro 4, SuperDuper, and Drive Genius, do not work on Intel-based Macs. There are two problems: First, none of these utilities can boot the new Macs, which is a critical part in repairing hard drives; Second, there are significant enough changes in the directory structure to prevent these utilities from doing their job.

All of the companies are working on updated versions of their applications that will be specific to the Intel-based Macs. Until they hit the market, however, Appleis Disk Utility is about your only option for repairing wayward hard drives.

In theory, Java-based applications should run without a hitch on the Intel-based Macs. In reality, there may be some problems. If you use a PowerPC-based application that relies on Java, and the Java routines include the JNI Libraries, the application most likely wonit even launch.

The problem is that the JNI Libraries are specific to PowerPC-based Macs, and the Java Virtual Machine - the tool that executes Java code - launches independently of Rosetta, preventing the JNI Libraries from loading. The bottom line is that PowerPC-based Java code simply wonit run.

The Future of Intel-Based Applications
The entire Mac community, both users and developers, have entered into a multi-year transition. Apple is currently selling PowerPC and Intel-based Macs, which is forcing developers to support two hardware platforms with their applications. Until the transition is complete, expect to see slower release cycles, since essentially two versions of an application need to be developed and tested before they are delivered to users.

Once Apple finishes its transition, however, there will still be several years where users have a mixed PowerPC and Intel environment, thanks to the resilience of the Mac. Unlike the Windows world, Mac users can continue to use a machine for five years, seven years, or even longer. But donit expect to see developers writing Universal Binary applications ten years from now. Odds are that they will be writing Intel only versions by that point.

Although we may go through some rough patches now, things will smooth out once we all have shiny, new, faster and more powerful Intel-based Macs sitting on our desks.