Why you WANT a 64-bit Mac OS X 10.4

As part of his WWDC keynote speech, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs introduced Mac OS X 10.4, code-named Tiger. Among many of the key new features, including the new iChat AV, Spotlight, RSS in Safari, Dashboard, better .Mac sync, and more, the big news is really that Mac OS 10.4 will be a 64-bit operating system.

The bad news is that this will most likely mean that no pre-G5 Macintosh computer will be supported. Or will it? Without having seen Steve Jobs’ keynote speech (yet) I don’t know if this was addressed or not. If true, it would mean a lot of angry PowerMac G4 owners, so my initial impression would be that Mac OS 10.4 will actually be compatible with G4’s. Perhaps dual-10.4 OS installs, then, one for the 64-bit processor machines (G5) and the 32-but machines. (G3). If anyone has details, please let me know!

But why is 64-bit computing so important? Other than the latest version of Adobe Photoshop, no Mac OS program takes advantage of the newer G5 processors. So let’s look (briefly) at what 64-bit processing means to the Mac market, and why you want it.

First, instruction sets will be longer (double) in a true-64-bit program or OS. What this means is that the data the processor is using is longer, meaning that it can compute much faster and complex instructions than a 32-bit OS. So, for instance, if you run a filter in Photoshop on a large, complex graphic, it will complete much faster than a 32-bit instruction set would. With a 64-bit OS, running on a 64-bit processor, everything should (theoretically) be much faster. Starting up should be faster. Apple would be able to imbed much more complex programs and features into the OS, without fear of those features slowing down the computer at all.

A prime example of this is the animated Dock in Mac OS X. When Apple first released OS X, many people complained that all the eye candy in it was slowing their computers down. Why use all the processing power to make a window genie-effect work? Or bouncing icons. Or little puffs of smoke when you remove a Dock item. All these eye-candy effects take processor time away from more important tasks, such as compressing a QuickTime movie, stuffing a large file, playing a movie trailer, running a Photoshop filter, displaying thumbnails in iPhoto, and a thousand other processor intense instructions.

A fast processor, say a dual-2 GB G5, can handle all these processes fairly quickly. The faster processor allows the current 32-bit instruction sets to perform faster. Now, change the 32-bit instructions to 64-bit, and you can see how that same dual-2 GB processor will (again, theoretically) run those same tasks even faster. Or allow the computer to run more complex instructions, such as new eye-candy accessories on the desktop. Or multiple video conferencing sessions at the same time. (iChat AV)

A 64-bit OS, however, will only speed up the OS itself, and really won’t help older programs run any faster. Which is why Steve Jobs first showed off OS X 10.4 (Tiger) at the World Wide Developers Conference. Apple knows that unless they can get the third-party developers (Adobe, Quark, Microsoft, et. al.) to upgrade their programs to 64-bit, very few benefits will be seen with the new OS. This is also why Apple is showing off 10.4 so far in advance of its actual release date, which is most likely still over a year away. (My guess? Look for it third-quarter, 2005.) Apple wants, if not needs, third party applications ready to go when 10.4 is released. By focusing on the new 64-bit OS now, as well as seeding advance, developer copies to their third party vendors, Apple is giving them plenty of time to get aboard.

For the vendors, there is a lot of incentive to move onto a 64-bit platform. Yes, the current crop of G5’s are already 64-bit processors, but without the OS running at 64-bits, which the programs use for many common tasks, the true benefits are minuscule. However, with Apple pushing the 64-bit PR angle, the third parties will be able to sell new versions of their software (and hardware!) to you, the customer.

Besides selling new copies of Photoshop, Maya, and Quark Express, these companies will also be allowed to begin developing much more powerful versions of their software, incorporating new features with a 64-bit instruction set that they were not able to on the 32-bit platform due to speed and other technological restrictions.

True 64-bit computing is finally on its way to the home computer market. The real benefits for a true 64-bit Mac OS X will probably not be seen until late 2006, but Apple is on the right road, once again leading the personal home computer market into the future. (As if they ever stopped doing so!)


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