The Intel-only future draws closer

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With Thursday’s release of Final Cut Studio and Logic Studio, Apple has moved its flagship video and audio editing suites exclusively to the Intel chipset—while previous releases were Universal apps for either PowerPC or Intel CPUs, these versions are Intel-only.

Adobe has been making similar moves with some of its programs as well—both Soundbooth CS4 and After Effects CS4 are Intel-only apps.

Beyond these mainstream productivity apps, many new games are shipping with Intel-only requirements—Call of Duty 4, for instance. There are many other such examples; you can find lots of pointers on Transgaming Technologies’ Cider page. (Cider is a technology that lets developers “wrap” their Windows games in a Mac-compatible bundle, so that they can be ported to the Mac with minimal work.)

It seems each time there’s an Intel-only release, there’s an uproar from the PowerPC-using population screaming “Hey, what about us?!” The unfortunate reality for PowerPC users—and hey, I am one since I’m still using my 12-inch PowerBook G4 regularly—is that the PowerPC chip is dead. It’s toast. It’s history. The first Intel-powered Macs were introduced in January 2006, making the most recent PowerPC machine nearly four years old now. In computing years, that’s a really long time.

For developers, the transition to the Intel chipset complicated the task of developing a new product, or even updating an existing product. Should the upgrade support PowerPC, Intel, or both? Apple tried to ease the process with the ability to develop a Universal application that would create one program that worked on either CPU. In many cases, though, developers couldn’t rely on this simple solution. For example, Adobe’s Michael Coleman discussed some of the Intel/PowerPC challenges facing the After Effects team, and Hart Shafer covered similar issues related to Soundbooth.

So while there are probably more than 10 million PowerPC machines out there—and that’s a lot of potential customers—it’s not necessarily trivial for a new release (or updated older release) to support those machines. Consider that these machines have less-powerful CPUs (by many magnitudes, in some cases), slower graphics cards, and probably less RAM than today’s machines; supporting these older machines isn’t easy, as discussed in the above blog posts. So developers are left to balance possible incremental sales against the time and effort to provide a version of their app on the PowerPC platform. As recent announcements have shown, many are choosing to go the Intel-only route.

If you think the trend is notable now, though, just wait until this fall when the Intel-only OS X 10.6 ships in a couple months. With a multitude of developer-centric features designed to ease development and speed program execution, I believe OS X 10.6 will further accelerate the move to Intel-only applications. There’s just so much goodness there for developers that I think OS X 10.6 is going to be a very strong carrot driving Intel-only application development.

Ever since Apple made the announcement in June 2005 that it would switch to Intel-built processors, Intel-only is the direction we’ve been headed. Apple has now clearly stated as much with the release of Final Cut Studio and Logic Studio in Intel-only form, and the release of OS X 10.6 will further cement that direction.

If you’re a PowerPC user, this move to Intel-only apps doesn’t mean your machine is worthless, of course. It just means that its abilities will be limited to those programs it can run today, and probably one or two more releases of the most-popular productivity applications. I would think, for instance, that the next versions of Photoshop and Office will support both platforms. Beyond that, though, the future of application development is clearly Intel-only.

Personally, even as someone who uses his PowerPC machine regularly, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Technology marches on, and it’s simply not realistic to expect Apple and developers to support two platforms indefinitely.

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