The Universal question

Most of the time, the question you’ll hear the most as you walk from one end of the Macworld Expo show floor to the other is something along the lines of, “What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen so far?” “What did you think of Steve’s keynote?” is usually a close second, at least for those who assume a first-name familiarity with Apple’s CEO.

But not this year. This time around, a different question was on the minds of Expo attendees, and it was directed squarely at most of the 300-plus Mac developers exhibiting their wares—“So, are you Universal, yet?”

Universal, of course, is the shorthand way of describing an application that runs natively on both a PowerPC-based Mac and the newer models powered by processors from Intel. And the question about Universal compatibility is more than just a way to break the conversational ice when you’re skulking around the show floor—it’s a critical question if you’re considering whether to buy an iMac Core Duo or, when it ships next month, a MacBook Pro.

Why so critical? If I may quote from the most recently updated version of our Intel transition FAQ:

If you rely primarily on programs that currently don’t exist in Intel versions, you may not see any of the speed benefits Apple advertises. If the programs you use all the time are already Universal—for example, iLife, Safari, Mail, iChat, stuff like that—then you will be much more likely to reap the speed benefits of these new Macs.

From what I can tell after talking with a sampling of developers on the show floor, there are two types of programs on the Mac platform now—those that are already Universal or those that will be soon enough. Which is another way of saying, Mac software makers seem to be on board with the Intel transition. That’s quite a contrast from my recollection of the OS-9-to-OS-X jump when it seemed like for every three or four products that went native, there was a holdout where the developer would hem and haw about the future of the product.

This time around, if a developer doesn’t have a Universal app ready, there’s usually a good reason for it. Take AEC Software, which was far along with its work on the last version of its FastTrack project-management application when Apple announced the switch to Intel chips. The company opted to finish up with that release and, now that FastTrack 9 is shipping, can concentrate its efforts on making the program Universal— something AEC is fully committed to, according to vice president of marketing Ryan Kish. In the meantime, FastTrack 9 should run just fine using Apple’s Rosetta code translator. “We were knocked out” by how the program performed, Kish says.

Now Software finds itself in a similar position. Last year was spent on prepping Now Up-to-Date & Contact 5.0 for release; now, the company can concentrate on adding Universal support, which should be happening shortly, according to Now’s director of marketing Randal Murray. “We’ve been testing all along,’ he adds. “As soon as we can get one of the newly released [Intel-based] machines, we can complete our testing.”

I could go on like this for page after page. The Omni Group’s applications are available in Universal format, with the exception of OmniWeb which is coming soon. Mariner Software’s two latest releases, Montage and MacJournal 4.0 will both be Universal when they ship in March. And so on. Macworld is currently working on a resource page that will help you track down the status of your favorite Mac app—we hope to push that live fairly soon.

Regardless of where your essential applications are in the transition process, here’s hoping the move to Universal turns out as smoothly as it did for ProjectWizards when it came time to create a Universal version of its Merlin project management application. “It was ready in 10 minutes [after Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June],” says ProjectWizards managing director Frank Blome. And he’s not exaggerating.

Developers were going out of their way to praise Apple’s level of support and cooperation in helping them to get their apps to run natively on Intel-based Macs—“Apple’s been great,” more than one developer told me. But there was grumbling from some corners of the show floor about efforts to promote Universal-ready apps. Steve Jobs noted in his keynote that the company didn’t tell developers about the imminent unveiling of either the Intel-based iMac or the MacBook Pro before-hand. The result? While a nifty Universal logo appears ready now, it wasn’t available last week for developers to hang up in their show booths. Such a sign might have answered the most frequently asked question on the show floor before attendees even had a chance to ask it.

Of course, some developers took matters into their own hands. At its booth, SmileOnMyMac had a hand-made sign hanging next to its snazzy Best of Show placard—“Intel-Ready, Already.” Maybe they should consider licensing the slogan for WWDC.

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