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Developers get taste of Intel-based Macs

Late-night sessions offer first look at how much work will be needed to fix programs so they can run on Intel-based Macs.

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In late-night sessions this week, Apple developers have been getting their first look at how much work they have ahead to convert their programs to run on Intel-based Macs.

After announcing the big shift on Monday, Apple Computer has offered developers an early chance to get their bearings, with labs of Intel-based Macs up and running at its Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco. The labs were open until 9 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday and until midnight Tuesday.

And though Apple won't start selling Intel-based Macs to customers until sometime next year, the Mac maker is leasing test machines to developers for $999 starting this month.

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What's new:
Following Steve Jobs' recent announcement of plans to move the Mac to Intel chips, developers of software for the Mac are getting their first chance to see how much work will be involved in updating their programs.

Bottom line:
For many developers, the move may be less jarring than past transitions, though for some it necessitates a shift to Apple's developer tools.

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Fetch Software president Jim Matthews said his company has been through past transitions, including the mid-'90s shift from Motorola's 68000 family of chips to PowerPC processors and the more recent move from OS 9 to OS X. Matthews said he appreciates the advance notice Apple is giving developers this time around.

"Apple is giving us plenty of time and hardware we can test on, which wasn't the case the last time," Matthews said.

For developers, the amount of work needed to make their code ready for next year's arrival of Intel-based Macs varies considerably. For Mac programs that are fairly new, written after the arrival of Mac OS X in Apple's Cocoa environment, the changes can be made in a matter of hours, or even less in some cases.

"We've already ported our app to Intel," said Wil Shipley, CEO of Delicious Monster Software. "All we had to do was click one button. It took about 40 seconds. It ran perfectly on the sneak-preview Intel Macs here at WWDC."

But for others, the changes will be more complex. For those whose applications were developed prior to Mac OS X and then "carbonized" to run natively in OS X, the work is somewhat more involved. If developers have used Apple's Xcode tools, it is still only a matter of weeks, at most, Apple said. But, if developers used tools from Metrowerks, they must first bring their code over to Apple's tools and then begin the work of tweaking the software for Intel's chips.

Microsoft is among those in that last camp. Both Virtual PC and Office for Mac were developed in Carbon, using tools from Metrowerks. Microsoft said it doesn't know how much work it has ahead of itself.

"That's one of the main things our developers are looking at," said Scott Erickson, group product manager for Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit. Microsoft has already said it will make future versions of Office run natively on Intel chips, but it has yet to detail plans for Virtual PC, software that allows Windows programs to run on a Mac.

Developers seem generally upbeat, though. Bare Bones Software has had a team of workers testing code on the Intel machines Apple has made available. CEO Rich Siegel said the early testing largely confirms the belief that the effort needed won't be extraordinary.

"Our initial analysis and prediction of a smooth transition still appears to be accurate, even after a few days of review and analysis," Siegel said in an e-mail interview. "There are some adjustments to be made, but nothing particularly daunting."

One community where there are signs of discontent is the high-end computing market Apple has garnered with Mac OS X. There has been much discussion in recent days on Apple's mailing lists for scientific and technical computing issues about the work those developers face. Many have written optimizations and code that specifically targets the PowerPC's AltiVec instructions.

Though Apple believes that there is not that much work for most developers, Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller said the company is trying to be careful not to trivialize the work that needs to be done.

Go to photo: Jobs speaks to developers about the switch

He notes that the work required to take OS 9 applications and make them run natively in OS X, a process known as Carbonization, ended up being tougher than Apple had thought. "That turned out to be more work than we all expected" Schiller said in an interview Monday. "This is not near the (same) effort."

For smaller companies that may not want to invest the time or the $1,000 to rent the Intel system, a company called Advenio has a service in which it will do the necessary porting work. As an indication of the relative time involved, the company is charging a flat $100 fee to create a universal binary of a Cocoa application; the fee for porting a Carbonized program starts at $500 and depends on the amount of work involved.

Fetch Software's Matthews said he is not too worried about the time needed to move applications over to the Intel chips, especially as compared with past transitions. "I think this is probably going to be the least traumatic switch for our software."

Of more concern, though, is what customers do during an uncertain time for the Mac, as Apple tries to continue selling PowerPC-based Macs while laying plans for a day when such machines will be entirely supplanted by Intel machines. "It's going to be fine as long as customers don't freak out, as long as customers don't stop buying Macs," Matthews said.

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