• Reading the Tea Leaves on Future Universal Applications

    February 4th, 2006

    I can see plenty of logic in Apple’s early release of the first MacIntels. First of all, the hardware was ready to roll, and getting the products out quickly will not only help move product at a time when Mac sales are slowing, but force third party developers to hurry up and get their Universal binaries out.

    Of course, just saying work faster doesn’t actually make things happen more efficiently. Proper software development is a slow and exacting process. However, if an application has already been built using Apple’s Xcode development tools, the transition to Universal for both PowerPC and Intel-based Macs can happen relatively quickly. If you have been following the situation, you can see that some of those Universal applications appeared even before the new iMac and MacBook Pro were announced, and the pace has indeed accelerated. Almost every day brings news of more updates.

    But what about the applications that many of you depend on to earn a paycheck? When will they make the transition? Well, consider Microsoft Office. When I talked with Microsoft’s Mac BU Marketing Manager Amanda Lefebvre on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, she pained a pretty realistic picture of the situation. Remember that Office was developed on CodeWarrior, so it has to be brought into Xcode first, the appropriate changes made, and then millions of lines of code have to be tweaked to work on two processor families. If it sounds like a daunting process, I agree. Lefebvre wouldn’t commit to a date, other than to say that the next major release of Mac Office would be Universal. She did say they have been following a 24 to 36 month development cycle, and since Office 2004 appeared in the spring of that year, you can pretty well guess the potential deadlines for the next upgrade.

    Even though you might have to wait for the spring of 2007, Office runs pretty well on today’s MacIntel. It’s not heavily processor dependent, and will run fast enough to satisfy most of you.

    The situation isn’t quite as rosy with Adobe’s creative software. Although predictably vague, the company did release an FAQ explaining what they plan to do. Their development cycle is 18 to 24 months, which means that Universal versions of a number of Adobe creative applications will show up between the fall of this year and spring of 2007. The exception is Adobe Lightroom, their competitor to Apple’s Aperture, now in public beta. A Universal version is promised “shortly.”

    In the interim, most of Adobe’s applications, including the ones inherited from the merger with Macromedia, will run reliably, with the apparent exception of Version Cue Workspace (Server), which isn’t compatible with the Rosetta emulation environment.

    Based on the published reviews, Rosetta, for example, cuts Photoshop’s speed in half. At the same time, Adobe suggests you upgrade to a minimum of 1GB RAM to help maximize performance under emulation. Part of the reason, though not stated, is because Rosetta increases a program’s memory needs by about 50% in order to do its thing, which is to convert chunks of code to Intel in RAM.

    Why is all this taking so long? Well, like Microsoft, Adobe has to move its Mac software development to Xcode. The Universal upgrades will be incorporated into Adobe’s regular development process, so the new versions will carry the standard price tags. No surprises there.

    Looking at Adobe’s statements, though, you’ll notice that one key product isn’t mentioned in the upgrade plans, and that’s FreeHand, the Illustrator competitor that was published by Macromedia. It hasn’t been upgraded in quite a while, and its future was regarded as uncertain on the day the merger between the two giant software companies was announced. While I realize FreeHand has its loyal users, I also think the handwriting is on the wall. Unless Adobe sells it to another company, it will be history, though one hopes its best features will somehow make their way into the next version of Illustrator.

    What about other Mac developers? Well, you can probably apply the situations at Adobe and Microsoft with pretty good accuracy. If a program has a huge code base, and wasn’t originally developed in Xcode, Universal versions will take a lot of time to complete. If you depend on these applications for your work, how could it be otherwise? You don’t want to put up with buggy software just because a company rushed to upgrade its products.

    Tea leaves? Well, not really. Just a little dose of reality.

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