• Universal Binaries: Get Ready for the Avalanche

    December 3rd, 2005

    It doesn’t take any special abilities to speculate that Mac developers around the world are busy this holiday season. No, not just buying presents for family and friends, but working on updates for their software to get ready for the MacIntel era.

    In case you’ve tuned in late, in order to be compatible with both PowerPC and Intel processors, they’ll have to build a Universal Binary version of their products. The idea is roughly equivalent to the Fat Binaries of a decade or so ago, which ran on the older Motorola 680×0 processors and PowerPC, but the amount of work required may in many cases be easier. This time out, Apple has worked hard to provide instructions and software to help ease the process.

    In many cases, ease is the watchword. If a developer uses XCode, Apple’s own set of programmer tools, it may be as simple as checking an extra box and recompiling the application. In many cases, of course, it may involve a little tweaking here and there, but the end product will run well on both processors. You’ve already seen a few programs in Universal Binary form, although they look and act like any other Mac application. If you’re a Tiger user, check the Preview window on those applications for the magic words “Intel, PowerPC” in the Architecture category. These applications will run native on the forthcoming Macs with Intel inside; most of the rest will have to run in an emulation environment called Rosetta. And that, my friends, doesn’t include Mac OS 9, or Classic, applications, which are not, at least as of this time, supported. So bye, bye Classic.

    Among the first applications out of the starting gate was Andrew Stone’s iMaginator, photo editing software that takes advantage of the Core Image technology in Tiger. The popular Mac OS X maintenance application, Cocktail, has also gone this route, along with Sound Studio, an audio editing program. In each case, the conversion was, in the scheme of things, fairly simple for the most part. There are a number of similar examples out there and the list will be growing fast in the coming weeks.

    For other applications, the trip will be a lot more difficult. Games, for example, which are written directly to the hardware, will be rather more difficult to port. If an application was created using, say, CodeWarrior, all the software code will first have to be brought into Apple’s XCode, and that can involve a time-consuming conversion process. It make take months to get the work done, and you’ll probably have to wait for the next paid upgrades to acquire those new versions. Consider, say, Adobe’s Creative Suite, including Photoshop and all the rest, and Microsoft Office. Of course, if these upgrades include a sufficient number of new features to make the price seem sensible, you won’t complain quite as much. I just hope certain developers are smart enough not to repeat the experience of initial transition to Mac OS X, where a few features were added, but you were really only paying for native Mac OS X support.

    In many cases, however, the upgrades will be free. A lot of it depends on the amount of time and money a developer has to expend to create that Universal Binary. Certainly, you can’t expect a company to work months on a new version without getting a return on the investment, right?

    Among the surprising entrants into the Universal Binary world is a preview version of Opera 9 for the Mac. It hasn’t been well publicized, and, in fact, you have to check out the user forums at Opera Software to locate the download. This is definitely an early release and is apt to be flaky in some areas, although it seems to run pretty well for me. It’s also not yet feature complete.

    Major improvements include improved support for Web standards, site-specific preferences (a feature already available in OmniWeb), and loads of under-the-hood enhancements. For now, the people at Opera aren’t really drawing attention to the application’s Universal Binary status, but that will probably change once it’s closer to release. No, I’m not going to review Opera 9 right now. I’m just mentioning it in passing as an example of the great processor transition.

    The most important part of this transition is whether the process is seamless for the customer. If it’s successful, you’ll be able to run the new generation of Macs and not notice what kind of processor is inside. Most of your favorite Mac OS X applications should continue to work, but you’ll want to get Universal Binary versions as soon as they become available. Or at least, if the price isn’t too high.

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