Developers Hold Key To Apple's x86 Success


"It's going to be a tough transition for the developers," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group. "They're got a hardware platform that doesn't exist yet. Microsoft and Adobe will clearly be aggressive in developing software for the new Macs. But for some of the smaller guys, it's going to be much tougher to move them across. A lot of them are developing right now for Microsoft or Linux, or both. Now, you're giving them a third platform, one for which customers won't really show up until 2007."

On Tuesday, on the message boards and forums populated by independent Apple developers, opinion appeared divided about Apple's biggest architectural move since 1994, when it shifted the Mac from Motorola's 68000 architecture to the PowerPC.

"This is a great time," wrote one poster on "The Mac OS is finally strong enough to differentiate itself on the merits of the system."

However, other posters griped about possible performance issues, insinuating that Apple may have tweaked its demonstration on Monday by using an Intel-based Mac containing four processors, in a bid to showcase the speed of its software. Some denizens of the boards were also annoyed that Apple is telling developers they're not allowed to release any benchmarks they obtain for Intel-based Macs. [Update: After posting time, an Apple spokeswoman said that the demo system contained a single 3.6 GHz Pentium 4 processor.]

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Prototype Intel-based Mac hardware will soon be in the hands of the first crop of developers. To stoke the pipeline with applications that can run on the x86-based Macs it will begin fielding next year, Apple is offering a $999 "transition kit" to members of its "select" and "premier" developer programs. (Developers who are not already members must also pay up-front fees of $500 or $3,500, respectively, to join the select or premier programs.)

The centerpiece of the kit is its support for "universal binaries." Apple wants developers to create their code in this form, because the binaries run natively on both PowerPC and upcoming x86-based Macs, and equally well on either.

The kit includes Xcode 2.1, which is Apple's development environment for creating universal binaries. Also included is a preview release of Mac's "Tiger" OS X running on X86.

"I think Apple's basic approach is good," said Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at Jupiter Research. "The decision to [use universal binaries to] compile for both processors was the right one. That said, the porting experience won't be equal for everyone. Those apps written in Cocoa using Apple's developer tools will be easier to port. Those developed using Carbon will take longer." (Cocoa is Apple's environment for developing the more flexible native OS X applications. Carbon is a set of APIs tightly tied to PowerPC-based Mac apps.)

By offering such tools early on, Apple appears to be going out of its way to bring developers into the x86 fold. "Apple has done a pretty good job of putting all the pieces in place to make the transition as easy as possible," said Wilcox.

Among some developers, questions are also arising about the timing of Apple's move. Apple's last transition, from 68000 to PowerPC in 1994, came just prior to Microsoft's release of its groundbreaking Windows 95 OS. This time, Apple appears to be attempt to head Microsoft's upcoming Longhorn OS off at the pass.

In addition, the next version of Mac OS X, "Leopard," will be released in late 2006 or early 2007, approximately the same time Microsoft rolls out Longhorn.

Whether Apple can use the opportunities to capture new developers, or whether it's engaged in more of a blocking action, is the subject of debate. "Apple is doing this just as Microsoft is gearing up for Longhorn," said Wilcox. "If I'm a developer with limited resources, I'm going to favor Windows over the Mac."

Despite the early availability of Apple's software-transition tools, the fact that x86-based Macs won't be in consumers hands until next year could give some programmers pause, Enderle said. "The problem is going to be that the little developer isn't going to want to make the move until the hardware is there," Enderle added.

Still, Steve Jobs' charisma and Apple's strong software-evangelism efforts could take up a lot of the slack.

Software aside, questions have also begun circulating as to just how well the Mac can maintain its individuality once it adopts the widely used x86 architecture. "One of Apple's biggest problems is how it will continue to differentiate," said Wilcox. "It's kept a very lean selection of products. Now, as Apple moves into the Intel world, it will be under more pressure to release newer products more frequently. There's a lot of impact in terms of you production costs, margins, and perceptions, especially compared to companies like Dell."

However, one poster on on Slashdot found a silver lining in such concerns. "Now with Mac using x86 this will probably keep the Dells, Gateways, and other honest," the poster wrote.