Analysts: Late Universal apps won't stall Intel shift

As MacBook Pro laptops arrived this week, users of the first Intel-powered Mac portables began firing up their new machines for the first time. What they haven’t been able to do, however, is find versions of some pretty high-profile professional applications that run natively on the MacBook’s Intel Core Duo chip. And, according to the public pronouncements from software makers such as Adobe and Microsoft, they shouldn’t expect Universal-binary versions of those programs to appear any time soon.

But if the absence of Universal versions of marquee programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office as the first Intel-based pro systems hit retail shelves is causing any concern among developers or at Apple, executives are keeping their worries to themselves. And tech analysts following the Mac market’s transition to Intel-supplied processors say that Apple and its developers are right to be unconcerned.

“I don’t think we are going to see a total transition this year in the sense that the PowerPC will be discontinued,” said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at JupiterResearch. “Until the pro apps are available, it’s likely Apple will keep several [models] of the Power Mac available to make sure the high-end professional can continue to get machines.”

To be fair, the MacBook Pro arrives with many Universal versions of applications already available—around 900, according to Apple’s online products guide. That figure includes a number of high-profile apps aimed at power users, including Wolfram Research’s Mathematica and betas of QuarkXPress 7 and Adobe’s own Lightroom photo workflow app.

But none of the applications making up Adobe’s Creative Suite or Microsoft’s Office are on the list of Universal-ready software. Both software giants have announced their support for Apple’s move to Intel processors—Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen appeared on-stage with Steve Jobs during the Worldwide Developers’ Conference keynote announcing the switch and Microsoft pledged to deliver a Universal version of Office at this January’s Macworld Expo.

Support coming… but when?

Pledging to support Intel-based Macs and delivering software that runs natively on the machines are two different things, however. Microsoft hasn’t provided a time frame for when to expect a Universal version of Office. Typically, the company releases a major Office update every few years years—Office 2004 came out in mid-2004—but the company has hinted this schedule may be affected by the Intel transition.

For its part, Adobe says it doesn’t plan to release minor updates that merely add Intel support to current versions of its existing apps. Rather, Creative Suite 2, the Studio 8 suite inherited from Macromedia, and the just-released After Effects 7.0 wouldn’t become Intel-native until their next major upgrade. Adobe has a history of releasing major updates every 18 to 24 months. With Creative Suite 2 shipping at the end of April 2005, that means Intel-native versions of applications like Photoshop and InDesign may not appear until fall of this year at the earliest—and maybe not until 2007, long after the last of Apple’s hardware line is slated to switch over to Intel-supplied processors.

Adobe declined to comment for this article, as did Apple.

The numbers game

Having applications that run natively on Intel-based Macs is not merely a matter of semantics—it goes right to the heart of how these new machines will perform. While programs that run natively on Intel processors are likely to out-perform their PowerPC counterparts, applications running through Apple’s Rosetta emulation technology don’t fare as well. Rosetta enables those apps to run on Intel-based machines, but usually at speeds noticeably slower than they would on a PowerPC system.

Consider Macworld Lab’s tests of the iMac Core Duo. A 2.0GHz iMac Core Duo completed the Photoshop suite test—a set of 14 scripted using a 50MB file—in 2 minutes, 50 seconds. A 2.1GHz iMac G5 completed the same suite in 1 minute, 16 seconds—less than half the time. A Microsoft Word scroll test involving a 500-page document produced similar results—the iMac Core Duo completed it in 1 minute, 58 seconds, while the iMac G5 finished in 57 seconds. Tests of the MacBook Pro produced similar results—the new laptop bested a PowerBook G4 when running Universal apps, but was out-performed on the Photoshop suite test.

If these results are distressing to Mac users with high-end needs, they don’t seem to faze tech industry analysts. The reason: the iMac results are coming from a consumer-friendly machine, which, analysts note, is not typically called upon to perform the processor-intensive tasks required by an application such as Photoshop. “One of the reasons we saw the iMac targeted first is because it is the line that is going to be least impacted by the pro apps,” JupiterResearch’s Gartenberg says.

Even for professional apps that are used by consumers—Microsoft Office, say—the results using Rosetta aren’t that discouraging, analysts say. “Few Microsoft Office users require that much horsepower, so running in [Rosetta] wouldn’t be a deal breaker for them,” said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for the technology tracking division of market-research firm NPD Group.

The absence of a Universal version of Photoshop poses more of a challenge for Apple’s, analysts say—but even that depends on what system you’re talking about.

“Most Photoshop pros won’t be using iMacs, and for casual users, I suspect that current performance is going to be OK. Not great, but OK,” Gartenberg said. “What’s interesting to see is what will be MacBook [Pro] performance for these apps relative to the [PowerBook] G4s they replace. There’s an audience that won’t be happy if they’re running slower than a G4.”

PowerPC still available

Even then, a delay in the arrival of Universal versions of high-profile programs may not hurt Apple’s bottom line, analysts say, since PowerPC-based systems remain a viable alternative to buying an Intel-based machine. Indeed, even with the arrival of the MacBook Pro, 12-inch and 17-inch PowerBook G4s are still available from Apple’s online store. (Sales of the 15-inch PowerBook G4 were discontinued earlier this week.)

Gartenberg believes pro users are likely to keep buying Macs in the same way they always have—according to their needs. However, instead of buying one of the new Intel Macs, they will opt for the PowerPC-based machine, so they get the performance they need.

“People typically buy according to need,” Gartenberg added. “If you’re buying one of these [PowerPC] machines, it’s not like it is obsolete. If you bought a Power Mac today, it probably won’t be obsolete for the lifetime of that machine. By the time that machine reaches the end of its usefulness, you’ll be ready to move onto something else.”

NPD’s Rubin agrees. “The PowerPC systems that are available today have at least another two years of life left,” he said. “Apple will support those machines with the next version of its operating system, so if you buy a PowerPC machine, it’s still a good investment.”

Apple finds itself in a tricky period at this stage of the Intel transition. While two of its offerings now feature Intel processors, the rest continue to rely on PowerPC chips. And that’s forcing Apple to consider a number of factors, says EndPoint Technologies president Roger Kay—how to keep up demand for PowerPC configurations up until that inventory is exhausted; when to bring the Intel-based replacements into to the product line; and how to keep customers from holding off on upgrades.

“There is always an issue for a product you currently have when you expose the market to a future product,” Kay said. “When commercial customers become aware that there might be something better down the road, they might delay buying now, particularly if they have some flexibility.”

The trick, says Gartenberg, is that Apple must make sure its professional users have a computer to turn to during the transition to avoid any kind of fall-off in sales.

And if that proves small comfort to Mac users worried about the availability of Universal versions of pro apps, consider the last time the Mac platform went through a similar transition. The first OS X-native versions of Office and Photoshop didn’t appear until November 2001 and Spring 2002, respectively—so long after the initial March 2001 debut of Mac OS X that Apple released a significant upgrade to the operating system in the interim. Whatever concerns there were back then about how the lack of OS X-native versions of professional apps might affect Apple have long since faded away.

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