Universal Binaries: What They Are And Why Your Company Should Care

Apple introduced universal binaries in 2005 to simplify the transition between the old Power PC architecture and the x86 Intel processors of today's Macintosh systems. Universal binaries are application bundles that run on either architecture without reducing system performance.

Imagine running an application called PhotoGo by Acme Software Company on a Power PC. PhotoGo is not yet a universal binary, but the application never crashes, runs fast, and operates as expected. One day the Power PC is hit by a meteor. Luckily acts of God are covered by your company's insurance policy, and the machine is replaced with a new Mac Pro Quad Xeon 64-bit workstation. Installation of PhotoGo runs smoothly; all data was miraculously rescued from the rubble of the old Power PC.

You open PhotoGo for the first time and notice a serious system lag. The application takes twenty seconds longer to start up than before, and a series of crashes and kernel panics pepper the execution of any new project. The application begins to cause more problems than it was designed to solve.

This is what might happen if you rely on applications that have not adapted to industry changes. Without a universal binary structure, the application will only operate smoothly on slower, older computers. Today's companies should move away from Power PC applications to programs of the same caliber that are universal binaries. Failure to make the transition will eventually result in a frustrating loss of productivity.

We have begun to assess the benefits and drawbacks of switching out older software applications versus waiting to see how long it takes for the software companies to implement the new compatibility standards. Microsoft applications have been slow to upgrade, but since the Word format is so ubiquitous we are suspending our decision until the end of this year when Microsoft forecasts compliance. Adobe is still working on updating its software and should be compliant in the spring. If your company relies heavily on Photoshop, it is now possible to download the beta version of Photoshop CS3 and give it a test run.


Tips On Testing Your Software

One obvious method of researching the structural compliance of your company's software is to contact the software provider that produces each application for information about current or future implementation of universal binary standards. Regardless of their responses, you will want to test the applications on a new machine.

Begin by starting each application you wish to test. Open the activity monitor to see a list of currently running applications (located under ~/applications/utilities). The "kind" list on the right labels each application as Intel or Power PC. If the application is listed as Intel, the application complies with the universal binary standards; if it lists as Power PC, you will have to investigate the software company's plans for the future.

Doc4 relies heavily on an application called TextWrangler, and we did not want to start searching for a replacement. Textwrangler lists as Intel, so it complies with universal binary standards. However, our use of an application called TinkerTool came to a halt when we saw the application listed as Power PC. After consulting the software provider's help files and website, we discovered that an update to universal binary is unlikely. TinkerTool was ideal for its small size and never disappointed us with slow startups or kernel panics, but we have decided to part ways with this minor application in favor of a similar product called Deeper. Deeper serves many of the same purposes, but its developers are keeping current with industry standards.


Universal Binary Applications


We already mentioned TextWrangler, a great freeware application for text editing on the Mac. It opens quickly and has many convenient features for web designers who write a lot of code. It numbers lines, limits character lines for Javascript, highlights XHTML, CSS and is also great for transitioning text from Word to Illustrator — a transition that often frustrates designers.

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We also mentioned Deeper, a freeware personalization tool available for Mac users. Deeper provides convenient access to the hidden functions located in Finder, Exposé, Safari, Dock, Dashboard, and many other applications. Among our favorite features are the scroll bar arrow positioning and a neat alternative dock placement (otherwise unavailable in system preferences). Deeper also has screen capture options for multiple image formats with better resolution than standard jpegs. It also automatically restarts your Finder.

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Santa Software has released one of the best freeware maintenance applications around. We arrived at MainMenu by comparing ten maintenance programs. All were equally on par with features and usability, but we chose MainMenu because its developers made it a little more convenient than the others. MainMenu rests in the menu bar for quick use and has a well-developed interface. It also has a small window that allows the user to monitor what it is doing while it does it. Other programs only notify when a process is complete.

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One of the first applications Doc4 purchased is Artis Software's xScope. This program from the Iconfactory is a powerful set of ideal tools for measuring, aligning, or inspecting on-screen graphics and layouts. Its flexible features are always conveniently available via the menu bar, and the tools themselves hover above desktop windows and UI elements making utilization a breeze. The convenience is easily worth the low cost of $16.95.

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Jiggler's sole purpose is to keep your Macintosh awake. While working on a lengthy task, it can be irritating to turn off the screen saver and sleep timer only to turn them both back on again when you are finished. The "never sleep" feature will keep the screen saver from kicking in but will not prevent a machine from falling asleep.

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Catalog, as its name suggests, is a handy file organizer. Disk Tracker is widely used, but for reasons unknown, its developers seem to believe we should use OS8 on an Apple IIe. Catalog is a great alternative, costs only $20 ($10 less than Disk Tracker), and its developers got it right. It is a cheaper program with a superior, more user-friendly interface. Disk Tracker's website probably hasn't even been updated since 2001.

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Fire is a multi-protocol IM client that supports multiple user accounts simultaneously. This allows switching between an AOL IM account and a Jabber account within Fire or leaving both accounts active at the same time. Many people have strong opinions about instant messengers. Some prefer iChat; others swear by Adium, but we like Fire. Most IM applications are now universal binaries, and many have unique features that no long-time user of any one, in particular, will want to give up. Nevertheless, we think Fire is a great application.

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Perian Component.

Getting AVI files to play on the Macintosh is an issue worth mentioning. After years of swearing by VLC, the lone functioning freeware AVI player, we have switched to Perian. Perian is a free and simple component for Quicktime that actually works. VLC is great, but it takes up more hard drive space as a separate application. Perian offers the option of a smaller integrated component.

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We recently switched to this password tool from an inferior application called PasswordMaster. PasswordMaster's developers seem to have no plans for bringing their software into the present. Wallet has an easily understood interface similar to AddressBook, is priced at $25.00, and never forces users to litter their hard drives with large backup files. We like and recommend it.

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We hope this article makes it easier for you to prepare for the coming changes and keep your applications running smoothly.

Tom Santiago

Tom Santiago

Technical Writer at Early Warning