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  • The Apple/Intel Report: About that Rosetta Trademark

    November 12th, 2005

    There’s no question that Apple’s marketing people like to use memorable names with which to identify some products or product features. Where, for example, a company might call its Wi-Fi router a WZR-G108, Apple calls it an AirPort Extreme. But that wasn’t always the case. When the first Macs with PowerPC appeared in 1994, there was no distinctive name to describe the software used to emulate the older processor family that allowed you to run your existing applications.

    As most of you know, the MacIntel will have an emulator too, one that fools a Mac OS X application into believing you have a G3 processor, but it is not just any old processor translation scheme. It is “Rosetta,” and Apple has patented the name to be sure that no other company uses it to describe a similar technology. If you ask Apple about it, they’ll tell you it’s their technology and if you consider the sum of the parts, that’s no doubt true.

    At the same time, Apple didn’t invent every single element of Rosetta any more than it invented every single element of the iPod. Just as the original iPod used a platform developed by PortalPlayer, Inc., Rosetta uses technology created by Transitive Corporation. If you ask Apple and Transitive, they will admit there is a relationship between the two companies, but the specifics aren’t going to be spelled out with much detail. You can consult the information about Transitive to get the basics on its emulation technology and potential, but how Apple might have modified QuickTransit technology to build Rosetta is not something either company will talk about.

    In the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter which company built which widget. The results count, and if the emulation process is fast, efficient and reliable, that’s the best you can hope for. But I’ll get to that in a bit more detail presently.

    Now I was amused a few days ago when I read some online chatter about all this. One camp took the realistic approach and pointed out that Transitive had contributed its product to the end result. The other camp said that no, no, if Apple says it’s their technology, then they deserve all the credit. That position is naive, and it’s as silly as saying that Apple designs and manufactures every single component in your typical Power Mac. If you remove the industry standard components and the few parts custom built by others to Apple’s specifications, and there won’t be a lot left, other than the case, fittings and perhaps a small portion of the ventilation system.

    So what about the end result? Well, other than what many of you observed in the QuickTime playback of the Steve Jobs keynote at June’s WWDC, the evidence is anecdotal. For the most part, within its known limitations, Rosetta is surprisingly quick and stable. During that demonstration, you may have noticed that Adobe Photoshop seemed to take a long time to launch. At the same time, it doesn’t launch all that quickly on a normal Power Mac G5, so that maybe some overreacted. The platform used to display Rosetta’s capabilities was a Power Mac refitted with a Pentium 4, no doubt the same configuration that many developers have leased from Apple to develop software that runs on both Power PC and Intel.

    Officially, developers aren’t allowed to tell you a whole lot about their test systems, and I’d be the last one to ask that they violate their confidentiality agreements. While some will do so anyway, I prefer to respect these contracts. But what I saw at the WWDC in the public demonstration confirms that Rosetta is going to be a lot faster than you have a right to expect. Transitive says, in general, that QuickTransit is capable of delivering emulation performance in the range of 70% to 80% of the native processor speed. Except for the small number of applications that tax the CPU for sophisticated rendering functions, whether one application is native or emulated won’t be a significant factor.

    What’s more, let’s consider the prospects of those forthcoming Macs with Intel Inside that will perform a lot faster than today’s models. Even at the low end of Transitive’s estimate, 70%, the emulated application may still run a lot better than it does on the speediest PowerPC. It won’t be like the early days of the PowerPC, where your older applications took a speed hit that was both noticeable and frustrating. Of course, today’s PowerPC is a lot faster, so an application designed for the original Motorola 680×0 processor family runs rings around the speediest 68040 model of that era.

    In other words, I wouldn’t be too concerned, assuming, of course, that emulation bugs are kept to a minimum. It may take a while for the sprawling content creation applications to go native, but, with these exceptions, you won’t be disappointed.

    The only real fly in the ointment, so far at least, is the fact that your Classic Mac applications simply won’t run, or at least that appears to be the plan right now. So if there are few stragglers among your software collection, maybe it’s time to begin to look for some Mac OS X alternatives. Of course, if the demand is there, maybe Apple and that other company will find a way to create an expanded emulation environment to encompass Classic and pre-PowerPC software, but don’t hold your breath.



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