Thursday, April 12, 2007

End of the new beginning...

This year's Apple World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) is possibly going to be the most important in the history of the company. It will draw a line under 2 years of some success tempered by the big Intel shift and it will offer a fresh start for the company.

Many of you will disagree with the above statement. You might say that the move to Intel happened way ahead of schedule and lines have already been drawn under that period. Some will suggest that the fresh start came long ago with the return of Jobs or the release of the iPod. However, when the history of this time is written I believe that it will all be seen as time of rebuilding, all the way to the 11th of June, 2007. To understand this we need to first look back a couple of years.

On the 6th of June 2005, during his WWDC Keynote speech, Steve Jobs finally announced what everyone knew was coming. That Apple would be transitioning away from the PowerPC chip architecture to Intel. At the time the official line said Apple were aiming to complete this transition by the end of 2007. The first fruits of this roadmap came with the release of the Intel based MacBook Pro and iMac on the 10th of January 2006 at MacWorld Expo.

The Mini and MacBook followed, along with several updates to all the Intel based machines throughout the year. Until at the next WWDC Keynote on the 7th of August 2007 when the last of the Macs, Mac Pro and XServe, were finally released as Intel based computers. During that presentation it was highlighted several times that;

“Apple has successfully completed the transition to using Intel processors in just seven months—210 days to be exact,”

Of course this is perfectly good marketing speak, especially only starting the clock from the release of the first Intel based computer and not the first official announcement, but it doesn't tell the whole truth. If that were the case then there wouldn't have been a large group of Apple's most lucrative customers holding out until only just recently. For the whole truth we must also look at the software side of things.

During that first official announcement of the move to Intel back at WWDC '05, Steve Jobs revealed that Apple had been running OSX on Intel hardware from the beginning, benefiting from the flexibility of NextStep, OSX's ancestor. Apple obviously had the upper hand when it came to putting out software for Intel Macs. Apple's iLife and iWork software suites were released alongside the first Intel Mac hardware, as well as sundry utilities that come with OSX Tiger. Also released were two key technologies, Rosetta and Universal Binaries, which would be the key to ensuring a swift and successful transition.

Rosetta emulates the old PowerPC architecture, allowing software that has not yet been updated to run on new Intel based Macs. This ensured that the new machines had plenty of software to run on them, removing that as a barrier to ourchase. The only issue is (as with any emulation layer) the software run on Rosetta runs slowly. The faster Intel chips helped to lessen the impact of this, but it has remained an issue ever since. Still, Rosetta has, and will remain for some time to come, a key part of the transition strategy.

The idea behind Universal Binaries is that developers can very easily create a single version of an application that will run on both PowerPC and Intel based Macs. Most of the code in an application can happily be shared between the two platforms and the Universal Binary format takes care of managing the small amount of code that is specific to one platform or the other. This technology enabled developers to easily port their applications to the new machines whilst not alienating the vast majority of users who were still using PowerPC based machines.

The Apple third party Universal Applications list now counts over 6000 applications, so this must have been a success. Indeed, small and open source developers had Universal Binaries of their applications out within weeks. But it was always going to be the big developers, with the star attraction applications, that would take longest to migrate. Apple again used their advantage and showed the way with the early release of Final Cut Studio as a Universal Binary on the 30th of March 2006. Quark too joined the fray early with the release of version 7 on the 7th of August 2006. But to many of Apple's key customers, these were not the applications they were looking for, what these people wanted, and would hold out for, was Adobe's Creative Suit and Microsoft Office.

For both of these companies the transition to Intel based Macs could not have come at a worse time. Microsoft was battling to get Windows Vista and the accompanying version of Windows Office out of the door as quickly as possible. They were never going to sort out a Mac version of Office before this happened.

Things at Adobe were even worse. Their key application Photoshop is probably one of the most complex, non operating system, code bases around. With many platform specific optimisations it was going to be a hard job to re-code. On top of that add in the rest of Creative Suite and then on top of all that they merged with Macromedia, taking most of their products into Creative Suite as well.

The key Apple customers I keep talking about are the business customers, especially in the creative world. These people would not, and could not, upgrade to Intel based Macs until there was a top end machine (enter the Mac Pro) and at least Adobe CS. MS Office was a little less of an issue as the previous version runs okay under Rosetta emulation, but Photoshop does not. In almost every article even mentioning Rosetta or Intel Macs, the Photoshop issue was always raise. In fact you will be hard pushed to find a review of an Intel Mac (beside the Mini) which does not talk about Photoshop and the fact that if it is important to you, you should wait for a Universal Binary version.

Finally on the 27th of March 2007 Adobe released Creative Suite 3, including Universal Binaries for Mac. Not only was this good news in the form of their existence, but CS3 is a watershed release for Adobe, and therefore Apple. The inclusion of Macromedia's software portfolio, tightly integrated with the traditional CS tools, makes the whole far more powerful. But beyond that this release sees something quite unexpected, a Video Production suite including the return of Adobe Premier to the Mac. This is a massive vote of confidence in the future of the Mac platform and adds competition and variety which can only benefit users.

Microsoft Mac Office 2008 is not far away now too, almost a slam dunk for the Intel transition. This is why I suggested that the June WWDC this year will be such a turning point for Apple, because they can put all of this behind them. No longer will every review of new hardware talk about the lack of Photoshop or Word in native code. Finally everyone can look to the future of Apple, the fact that they run on Intel will no longer be worth mentioning. What better timing than this to release Leopard to the world, and have that be every one's focus, without any distractions.

From the 11th of June 2007 Leopard will be the story, if people want to bring Photoshop into it, it might be to wonder when Adobe will release a 64bit version to match Leopard's top to tail 64bit software stack. Soon after we should begin to see radically new Mac hardware. No need to hide an Intel chip in PowerPC clothing now. The June WWDC Keynote is going to be big, very big, and I am very jealous of anyone who gets to go. I will be here in good old Blighty reading the live blog feeds from MacRumors, Engadget and TUAW whilst history unfolds.

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