No Adobe... no problem?

Elsewhere on this site, my colleague Jim Dalrymple talks to an array of tech industry analysts about whether or not they’re concerned that high-profile pro apps such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office aren’t available in Intel-native form and won’t be any time soon. The analysts’ reaction to this seemingly alarming bit of news? A collective yawn. They’re hardly alone in that assessment—Adobe and Apple are so unconcerned that executives from both companies passed on offers to comment on Jim’s story. Everyone, it seems, has taken the news that Adobe doesn’t plan any special updates to add Universal-binary compatibility to its applications outside of the usual 18-to-24-month upgrade cycle with grace, equanimity, and nary a furrowed brow.

Well… everyone except me.

Look, I’m not overly wrung out over this particular development. I’m certainly not pulling a Jack-Nicholson-in- The-Shining stunt and typing “All Intel and no Adobe makes Apple a doomed company” over and over again on my Smith-Corona. But if you were to ask me whether it’s just a little bit worrisome that there’s no particular time-table for when we can expect Universal versions of some rather critical Mac applications, then I’m honestly going to have to reply that, yes, it is.

By now, you’re probably up to speed on why it’s important for applications to run natively on Intel-based Macs. In case you aren’t, here’s a quick recap: Programs running natively on an Intel processor are noticeably faster than their PowerPC-native counterparts, while programs that have to rely on Apple’s Rosetta emulation technology to perform on the iMac Core Duo or the MacBook Pro are not. Some times, that speed hit isn’t all that noticeable, but for processor-intensive applications—think Photoshop—it definitely is. Macworld Lab’s iMac Core Duo tests have a 2.1GHz iMac G5 completing a battery of Photoshop actions in less than half the time it took a 2.0GHz Core Duo model. The MacBook Pro results weren’t nearly so stark, but a 1.67GHz PowerBook G4 still outperformed a 2.0GHz MacBook Pro in the Photoshop test.

So why isn’t that cause for concern? Because, analysts say, the iMac isn’t typically the machine of choice for high-end pro users. And while the MacBook Pro may be at the upper end of Apple’s laptop offerings, the folks that rely on processor-intensive applications usually depend on desktops. What’s more, analysts point out, it’s not as if Mac shoppers don’t have other options if their favorite apps haven’t gone Universal yet—Apple continues to sell PowerPC machines (though not the 15-inch PowerBook or the 17-inch iMac G5, which have gone to the great retailer in the sky ).

That’s a pretty convincing argument on both fronts. Trouble is, it really doesn’t hold up.

Yes, there aren’t any pro-level Mac desktops powered by Intel chips available… at this precise moment . But we know there will be by the end of 2006—Apple told us as much. The same can’t be said for Photoshop, based on the upgrade schedule Adobe has hinted at. Sure, a Universal version of the image-editor might be out in 2006, but given that Photoshop CS2 is not quite a year old, 2007 seems like a more probable target.

So while it’s highly likely that an Intel-powered Mac desktop will be out by year’s end, it just as likely that a Universal version of Photoshop won’t be. So what are Mac users who depend on Photoshop supposed to do then?

Buy a PowerPC model , analysts seem to be saying. I think a different course of action is more likely: Buy nothing .

I’ve got a PowerPC-based Mac that I might be looking to upgrade in the next six months or so. Most of the apps that I use every day— BBEdit, Safari, OmniOutliner, and the like—have already added Universal compatibility. But Photoshop has not, and I use that program just enough to where I don’t want to take a performance hit if I upgrade to a machine that’s supposed to be an improvement over what I have. I’ll wager that people who use Photoshop a whole lot more than I do probably feel the same.

Sure, Apple eventually gets my money once I buy that new Intel system after the Universal version of Photoshop ships. But when it comes to taking in revenue, the Wall Street boys tend to favor “sooner” rather than “later,” if you follow my drift.

Now I want to acknowledge a caveat or two that could make all this hand-wringing seem as quaint as a pronouncement from the 1950s that rock ’n roll music will doubtlessly turn the nation’s youth into soulless communists. We’re talking about how Photoshop performs on a Core Duo chip when it’s entirely possible that a completely different Intel processor will find its way into whatever Apple has in store for the Power Mac’s successor. And that chip, in turn, could put more of a premium on performance, making the gap between a native application and one running via Rosetta less noticeable. Also, note that we’re talking about when Adobe is coming out with Universal versions of its software, which is a lot more re-assuring than the if side of the discussion. So long as we can expect Universal versions of major applications in a timely manner, this Intel transition should go just fine.

But, like it or not, perception still counts for something. And while Apple has enjoyed largely positive press for some time now, it wouldn’t take much to stop that momentum dead in its tracks—like a major application not appearing in Universal form until well into the next calendar year. It’s not exactly the gravest threat either Adobe or Apple will ever face, but to paraphrase a line from one of my favorite movies, I’d be worrying a lot less if I thought either of those guys was worrying just a little more.

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