The Mac Software Report: A Eulogy for PowerPC Applications

November 17th, 2006

This entire article may seem a tad premature, but I see the handwriting on the wall. You see, history is about to repeat itself.

Back in the mid-1990s, Apple ditched the aging 68K chip in favor of the PowerPC. When native applications first arrived, they were offered in “Fat Binary” versions, which meant that code for both chips was included. It didn’t take long, however, for companies to excise the 68K code, as more and more PowerPC Macs were sold. In a few years, Fat Binary versions were history.

Now in those days, it took quite some time for PowerPC software to appear at first, nothing like it is today, where, less than a year after the first MacIntel was released, there are well over 4,000 Universal applications. At the same time, less than year after the Intel switch began, many of its products are already in their second generation.

This accelerated release schedule is going to have some huge implications for those of you using older Macs. Perhaps the biggest salvo in what will be a growing trend was the release of the public beta of Adobe Soundbooth.

Contrary to what you might have expected, the application will be available for Windows and Intel-based Macs. PowerPC models need not apply. Of course, the final release probably won’t happen until some time next year.

So why is this happening? Well, Adobe talked about the work required to optimize a sound-editing application for specific hardware. Once it was done for Windows, it wasn’t so hard to port the application to Macs that used the same processor family. There would be extra costs and development time involved in producing a PowerPC version, which would reach a declining user base, so they decided not to do it.

But didn’t Steve Jobs tell us that making a Universal version of an application is a piece of cake, that all you had to do was select a couple of checkboxes in Xcode? Well, that may be true for some applications, but in most cases, a company has additional work to do to optimize performance for both processors and address compatibility issues. The job becomes all the more complicated if a developer has to first import all the code from a different programming environment, as Adobe and Microsoft had to do.

That, and the fact that they’re dealing with applications with millions of lines of code, explains, at least in part, why the Universal version of Adobe’s CS applications won’t appear until next spring and the new version of Office for the Mac won’t arrive till months later. It’s not that they are just sitting back and doing next to nothing, as some conspiracy theorists might want you to believe.
Now I am not about to suggest that the successors to these two application suites, which probably won’t appear until 2009 or later, will be Intel only, but that would seem perfectly logical in light of this trend.

This doesn’t mean that you should prepare to toss your PowerPC Macs right now. The movement away from Universal will be slow, and will first involve software that writes directly to the hardware. In addition to a sound-editing application, for example, don’t be surprised if games become part of this growing trend. Of course, when it comes to games and multimedia development, you always do best with the latest, most powerful hardware. Besides, games ported from Windows never worked quite as well on the PowerPC.

As for Apple, they will likely continue to produce Universal applications for several years. Operating systems? The same is true. I expect Leopard’s successor will also run on PowerPC hardware, but not 10.7, or whatever it’ll be called.

So, if you still like your old Mac, it’s not quite ready for retirement, but you should start looking for the gold watch.

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11 Responses to “The Mac Software Report: A Eulogy for PowerPC Applications”

  1. Wouter Schut says:

    Universal binaries are probably never going away. They are not so fat compared to the resources. And Apple also uses them for 64-bit compability. Apple might even go as fat as to introduce a Cell-Mac 😉

  2. Frodo says:

    In fairness to Apple, they have been warning Adobe and Microsoft for years that they need to move to Xcode. It’s not like this was an overnight surprise. Did MS and Adobe listen? Not until they were forced.

  3. DAG says:

    I think OS 10.5 will be the last call for the majority of PPC Macs and maybe even the G5 series.

    Apple’s sales bottomed out through the bulk of the G4 era and have grown steadily since the launch of the Intel CPU Macs. G3’s and previous lack the AltiVec ability of the G4’s and the G4’s themselves are bandwidth choked. Optimizing code for an outdated family of CPU’s is just going to hold back the feature set for future Mac OS and application development.

    That doesn’t mean you have to chunk your PPC Macs- it just means that they will essentially fill out their service life running apps and an OS from 2005-2006. That’s going to be a good place for many for a long time.

  4. Jim F. says:

    I agree with DAG, Leopard is it for PPC. Wouter Schut is probably not correct on the “Cell Mac” as that would be neat – but Apple will not go down the IBM road again – AMD more likely than that and so far no compelling reason to do that move. As a long time Mac owner / watcher this time is heady for an enthusiast. Never have we seen so much product change for Mac in such a short period. Remember those dark days of the PPC update that took us from 1.42 to 1.5 to 1.67mHz? Watching grass grow was quicker.

    I was one of those who purchased a “fat Mac” just in time to miss the new improved ROM update that could not be retrofited easily. I also purchased a 20 in iMac 1.8 PPC last year. So since I bought in again, it was time for Apple to change again (I am willing to accept large amounts of cash not to buy a MacBook Pro to insure it not to be obsoleted in the next year). Ok – I have learned my lesson. I will keep up to date on my Apple hardware and burn my Procrastinators club card. Well I will burn it soon….

  5. Tom Barta says:

    “In fairness to Apple, they have been warning Adobe and Microsoft for years that they need to move to Xcode. It’s not like this was an overnight surprise. Did MS and Adobe listen? Not until they were forced.”

    This is why ADBE must die; Apple has already “obsoleted” Premiere with Final Cut Pro. Apple could easily make Acrobat obsolete by upgrading Preview– Preview is ALREADY better, if all you are doing is looking at PDF’s. Apple or another party could easily use Core Image to take on the 800 pound Gorilla: Photoshop.

  6. David says:

    Tom, the reality is that Apple is dependent on 3rd party developers like Adobe and always will be. If Adobe suddenly stopped making Mac software Apple would be crippled. In order to survive Apple would have to suddenly create equivalent applications. That would not only hurt Apple by costing them a boat load of money, but it would scare away other potential developers who would see no future in developing for the platform. Even worse, few people will buy a computer that doesn’t have a healthy 3rd party development environment. I’ve been a Mac owner since 1992 and only tolerate Windows when necessary for work, but if the only sofware available for the Mac was made by Apple I’d switch to Linux/Windows tomorrow.

  7. David says:

    I think 3rd party developers and even Apple themselves will stop supporting PowerPC in the coming years. I expect the OS will be Universal until 10.7 (possibly called 11 to clearly indicate the break just as OS 8.7 was renamed OS 9 to officially end clone support). Having said that I plan to keep using my “family” of PowerPC Macs for several more years. Today’s software offers way more capabilities than I’ve ever used and I only moved from G4 to G5 because I was able to do so at minimal cost.

    I recently disposed of most of the old Macs that had been collecting dust in my basement. By combining the best parts of all of them I was able to build a PowerMac 8600 with specs that would’ve been pure science fiction in 1998. That machine feels very fast and with a vast quantity of OS 8/9 educational and games titles now available for next to nothing from family, friends and swap meets it might still be in active use 10 years from now.

  8. stevew says:

    Just a quick question? Can any app ‘legally’ talk directly to hardware? I thought those days were long gone when OS X was released. I have always understood that all ‘talking to devices’ had to pass through the OS X kernel.

  9. Reginald W says:

    I am a long time Apple person (1979 Apple ][+, Original 1984 Mac 128K) who became a computer sales person and then service/suport tech until I stopped in 2000. I only do my own, and help family and a few friends with their computers these days.

    The business I run uses Macs, had a couple DOS terminals in (now one is DOS, one is Windows, soon to be both Windows) that are specific to the use/application they run, and we have a Windows box for running QuickBooks which has zero access to the internet.

    We ran OS7/8/9 apps until I bought my first OSX machines, a couple eMacs running Jaguar, which had just been obsoleted and price reduced from the new eMacs that had just been released. I learned about OSX on these but didn’t really integrate OSX into the business. Our file server here was an SE/30 running OS7 file sharing with an external SCSI HD. Worked for all the stuff we were doing, supported the PPC Macs that actuallly did things. The server was simply a place to store data and didn’t need a lot of horsepower. I only EOL’d the SE/30 in 2003 because I picked up a cheap PPC Mac and the SE/30 was the oldest machine that needed to be updated. But it worked great up to that time with its 16MB (or did I have 32MB?) of RAM.

    The applications are what makes a computer useful. The OS is simply the glue that binds the hardware and the software applications together. As long as there are useful applications, and the hardware continues to function, the system is workable.

    What makes a system totally obsolete is when the software is so old that it doesn’t do the NEW things that new systems do that you need to be able to do. Then it is definitely time to replace it. You start thinking of replacing when older equipment isn’t up to the speed of new equipment. You replace it when that speed difference costs you money, such as if it will allow you to do the job in an hour instead of a day. Productivity rules in straight economics.

    So, as was mentioned earlier by David, there is hardware available that runs great, will continue to run great (baring hardware failure) for a long time even if it is PPC. If it is useful, then run it. If it starts to cost more to run than a new/newer machine does, then replace it, otherwise continue or relegate it to other uses and get a newer machine for those specific purposes that you need.

    BTW, I will likely upgrade the PPC Macs to Leopard (2 eMacs, iBook and a G5 tower) from their current status later in 2007 after Leopard has been put through its paces and 10.5.1 comes out. File server here (an older iMac 333MHz) is running OS9 and likely will for a while yet. No plans for any intel Mac purchases, unless the price is compelling. $-)

    My advice: Use what works for you and don’t feel pressured by someone to spend the money or upgrade if you don’t need it, can’t afford it or can’t understand it. Doesn’t mater what the sales person wants, what the tech pundit wants or what your friend wants you to do. Do what works for YOU.

  10. Robert Pritchett says:

    We AudioCast this article in the December issue of macCompanion over on iTunes, Column Section, Part 1. Gene has done an excellent job with this “Eulogy”.

    We bought some of the last iMacs using the G5 chipset(s) before Apple went Mactel, because the systems apparently don’t have the “Big Brother” chip technology embedded in the Intel chips and because the G5 fully implements 64-bit technology.

    And we fully expect Leopard to play nice and continue to work on the G5 once it comes out of beta and goes public, so these boxes have a little more life in them. Our first Mac lasted 6 years before we gifted it away. The 2nd also lasted a little more than 6 years before we gifted it away and it is also still running fine, as far as I know. Perhaps these G5s will last 6 years as well?

    Each version of Mac OS X has given us more features and ran faster than the previous versions and made the boxes feel like new machines all over again. Some have “complained’ about the software fee for each major release. Hopefully, Apple will continue that trend.

    I’d rather pay for a new OS than for a new box to run it on every year or so because the older boxes can’t handle the technology. I’m sure Apple has a few tricks up its sleeve after “Leopard”. ;^)

  11. Jon L says:

    I just bought 3 G4 cubes; I see a place for these older Mac’s and hope others will still support them in software. All running in 10.3.9. Soon to be uptodate with Tiger.

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