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The Mac Software Report: A Eulogy for PowerPC Applications

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.