Technology

How Goes the Mactel Software?


The transition to entirely new chips creates unique challenges for developers, especially the smaller ones

If one thing dominates the technical history of Apple Computer (AAPL), it's transitions. The most recent example: the shift from Apple's old operating system OS 9 to OS X. It was like starting all over again with a completely new computer. And software that Mac users had come to rely on -- from publishing programs like Quark XPress and Adobe's Photoshop (ADBE), to more general-use software like Microsoft's Office (MSFT) and Qualcomm's Eudora (QCOM) e-mail program -- all needed updating to run in a radically different environment.

That changeover dominated the Mac landscape in 2001 and 2002. Apple chief Steve Jobs went so far as to hold a mock funeral for the outgoing operating system at a developers' conference in 2002, making his point by lugging a coffin on stage.

A LEGION OF CHANGE.

Other notable transitions include the move to System 7 in 1991 and the changeover that began in 1994 from Motorola (MOT) 68K semiconductors to the PowerPC line of chips from IBM (IBM), Motorola, and the company that's now Freescale Semiconductor (FSL).

Now, Apple is shepherding the Mac and its legions of software developers through another transition -- this one nearly as momentous as the shift to OS X. And once again the centerpiece of the change lies in the microprocessor at the heart of the Mac. The PowerPC chips will soon find themselves supplanted by chips from Intel (INTC).

That means big changes in programs written for the Mac. And it has left some developers scrambling to ensure they're ready when Apple announces the availability of the first Intel-based Macs. Rumor has it that could happen at the annual Macworld Conference & Expo that kicks off Jan. 9.

IT'S EASY, SAYS JOBS.

Developers say in general, the switch is going smoothly. But it constitutes a tall order nonetheless. And for some, there have been hiccups.

Since the transition is taking place through this year and into 2007, Apple has told developers to build what it calls "universal binary" technology to create versions of their programs that work on either PowerPC or Intel-based Macs. Jobs has described the process of moving a program from the current Mac platform to the binary as a rather simple one (see BW Online, 6/7/05, "Apple Hits the Intel Switch").

As the biggest producer of software for the Mac outside of Apple, Microsoft has a lot riding on making the transition to Intel as smooth as possible. Moving its Office for Mac application -- used by some 8 million people around the world -- presents no small challenge. It's 20 years old and boasts some 25 million lines of code, points out Scott Erickson, director of product management at Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit.

"This is one of the biggest things on our minds," Erickson says. "Our teams are making the transition, and so far they have been successful." He declines to specify when the next revision of Office for the Mac will hit the market, but says Microsoft tends to follow a two- to three-year life cycle. Since the last update was released in May, 2004, an Intel-ready version could appear as soon as the middle of 2006.

TECHIE "SANDBOX."

Getting it ready also means lots of testing. At its Redmond (Wash.) headquarters, Microsoft operates a huge lab with dozens of different Macs -- some current, some older -- as well as a huge array of peripheral products such as printers and scanners.

"We call it the sandbox, because our people can go in there and play," Erickson says. "If someone wants to go in and run a certain program on a PowerMac G3, on a certain version of OS X, in Japanese -- to make sure our applications run O.K. in that particular setup -- that's where they go."

But as with all things on computers, the devil is in the details. How easily the transition goes can differ from one software company to the next, depending on what the application does.

APPS "ON THE FRINGE."

It's not really painless," says John Dasher, director of product management for PGP, a privately held security software concern that publishes e-mail and instant-messaging encryption software for both the Mac and Windows. "It represents some work. Some developers have said they can get it done in an afternoon, and that's certainly going to be true for some, but not for everyone. But Apple has really gone to great lengths to make the transition as painless as possible." For starters, it has been running versions of Mac OS X on Intel-based systems internally for about five years.

Still, some developers are finding the shift a trickier proposition. One is Paul Kafasis, head of Rogue Amoeba Software, a four-person outfit that produces audio applications for the Mac. Among the company's offerings is the popular Audio Hijack, which records streaming music from other applications -- like RealNetworks (RNWK) RealPlayer -- for use in other such applications as Apple's iTunes.

"The real problem for us is that our applications operate on the fringe," Kafasis says. "We're doing things that Apple doesn't necessarily allow in the operating system itself, and adding the functionality we need."

DEPENDENT ON OUTSIDERS.

In some cases, that means writing in what software engineers call "assembly language" -- what they use to talk directly to a microprocessor in order to tell the computer what to do. The assembly language used on the PowerPC differs from that used on Intel. Changing those parts of the application that use assembly takes some doing, since chips have big disparities in how they operate, Kafasis says.

In other cases, he says, bits of code exist that come from elsewhere, which are used under license. And not all of those have become available for Intel-based Macs. "For some of the tools we use to get inside the audio, we're dependent on other companies," says Kafasis.

Then there's the matter of the Intel-based computers Apple has made available. A software company can get one to use for 18 months for about $1,000. That works out fine for big developers like Adobe and Microsoft, or even small outfits like Rogue Amoeba, which has one. But it can be a prohibitively expense for one-person outfits, especially those that produce less well-known -- but often popular -- shareware and open-source software, generally distributed free or for a small fee.

Overall, it appears the Intel shift is following the pattern of previous transitions, says Tim Bajarin, president of researcher Creative Strategies. "Apple is really good at this," he says. "Based on the developers we've been talking to, we're hearing that, while this change is not something you can prepare for with your eyes closed, it's turning out to be easier than they expected." Maybe Jobs & Co. can get another coffin ready.


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