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According to Hoyle...

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Preview

August 2008

by Jonathan Hoyle


Last month we reviewed this year's Worldwide Developer Conference, the all-important Apple conference for programmers, engineers and and other technically inclined Mac person.  Although much of the media blitz was over the new iPhone, most conference attendees found the information about the new upcoming Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard release to be of greater importance. 


Confidentially Yours

Much of what is discussed at WWDC is covered under Apple's Non-Disclosure Agreement.  Now, admittedly, it doesn't take a great deal to get into the "secret circle"...essentially, you must simply sign up for a free Apple Developer Connection membership, electronically check the confidentiality clause, and boom all of Apple's free online information is there for your perusal.  However, since this article is outside this arena, I will being covering only those areas available to the general public, and I'll make suggestions as to where to look for those who do have memberships and wish to investigate further.

What is not hidden behind the shroud of Apple secrecy?  One thing which is you can usually count on is that the Steve Jobs keynote address is freely accessible, as Steve likes to use this pulpit to preach to the unconverted.  Unfortunately, this year's sermon did not cover the Macintosh at all but rather the iPhone.  This is very annoying to be sure, but fortunately, Apple has released a lot of public information about Snow Leopard through other avenues, such as press releases, web pages and information posted about WWDC itself.

For a high level overview on what Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard has to offer, visit Apple's web page on it.


Intel Inside

One of the biggest rumors spreading about was that Snow Leopard would be Intel-only.  This is hardly much of a surprise, given that Apple announced its Intel products over three years ago, and stopped selling PowerPC-based Macs as of two years ago.  Many developers were expecting this for some time now, so it would have been more surprising if it were not true.  Just days before WWDC, however, predicted just the opposite: that PowerPC was going to be a supported platform for Snow Leopard.  Unfortunately, Gizmodo's reasoning was faulty: it assumed that the existence of PowerPC-based drivers in the OS implied that the OS will target PPC.  An Intel-only version of Mac OS X would still require PowerPC-based drivers simply because Rosetta emulated applications will need them.  Since Rosetta will be around for at least until 10.7 or 10.8, we can expect to see PowerPC-built drivers (at least the 32-bit versions) around for a while.

As you are probably already aware by now, the original prediction was correct: Snow Leopard is indeed Intel-only.  Although I cannot find any Apple-authorized statement to this affect, but Snow Leopard's actual system requirements have already been released through dozens of web sites, including MacUser,  Ars Technica, MacNN, Softpedia, Apple Gazette, OS News, the Unofficial Apple Weblog, and many, many others.  I can only assume that Apple verbally confirmed this to the news outlets, as I do not find any publicly released statement to that affect on Apple's web site.  In any case, the cat is out of the bag, so I guess there is no harm in confirming that this is indeed true, as I can attest: having a Snow Leopard Prerelease DVD of my own.


A Thinner Fat

Of course, what this means is that for those compiling applications to run on Snow Leopard only, you need to compile only for two way Fat: Intel 32-bit and Intel-64-bit.  Indeed, one could change that and to an or and make it one-way Fat: as most Intels out there today support 64-bit.  For DLL and plugin developers, you will want to compile your programs as three way Fat: Intel-32, Intel-64 and PowerPC-32.  Why is that?  Well, simply a DLL or plugin must match the architecture of the host application, which loads it, and these are the only three types of applications that will run on Snow Leopard.  (Recall that the PowerPC emulation provided by Rosetta is 32-bit only).  Even for those wishing to support both 10.5 Leopard and 10.6 Snow Leopard in their builds, there is a very strong argument for dropping PowerPC 64-bit support: namely that PPC-64 lived and died in 10.5 Leopard, and only the highest end G5 machines would even be able to run such applications.  Furthermore, some of the technological advances in compiler options do not even bother to support PPC-64 (see below).  Those developing in Java have already seen this limitation: 64-bit Java has always been Intel only.


Xcode Marks the Spot

Whether Apple actually intended to publicly release information about Xcode 3.1 I do not know, but publicly released they did.  On the non-member version of their WWDC web site (which is indeed public), they give the following description about Session #907: New Compiler Technology and Future Directions:

Xcode 3.1 introduces two new compilers for Mac OS X: GCC 4.2 and LLVM-GCC. Learn how the new security and performance improvements in GCC 4.2 can help you produce better applications. Understand the innovations in LLVM-GCC, and find out how you can use it in your own testing and development. Finally, get a preview of future compiler developments.

This of course announces a couple of things: that the next version of Xcode is called 3.1, it will be able to use gcc 4.2 (a vastly improved version of gcc, which has remained stagnant at 4.0.1 for about three years now), and Xcode 3.1 will be able to opt for the newest and most powerful technology LLVM.  Since both gcc  and LLVM are open source projects, you can see what these new compilers have to offer without having to limbo under Apple's NDA pole.  I will go into further detail on these compilers in a future article, but I can assure you that this is great news for Mac developers.

For those who have not already done so, it's simply time to say goodbye to the old gcc 3.3 world.  gcc 4.2 is binary compatible with gcc 4.0, so you can mix and match these.  But gcc 3.3 is dead (and should have been made so before now).

Sadly, I do not see many article written about the new Xcode, despite the fact that so much of it is public domain information.



When is an Upgrade not an Upgrade?

One of the announcements about Snow Leopard which has caused a great deal of confusion has to do with its feature set; or better stated: its lack thereof.  Without the whiz-bang features found in the previous releases of Mac OS X, many people are mistakenly viewing 10.6 as merely a bug fix release, more aptly named 10.5.5.  This is far from the truth.  Although there are virtually no user-level features, the infrastructural changes abound, making them all worthwhile.  You may recall that the 10.1 release of Mac OS X was essentially the same thing.  And frankly, it's high time Apple did it again.  With all of the new widgets and features added to 10.4 Tiger, followed by the dump truck pouring of features in 10.5 Leopard, performance tuning and framework updates are a welcome substitute to yet more features.  With the dropping of the PowerPC platform, Apple has a great opportunity now to truly concentrate on these kinds of improvements.  Will it be worth the $129 they'll likely be asking for it?  You're damn right it will.


Apple Cores

One essential and powerful new addition to Snow Leopard is the ease with which developers can finally take advantage of all those extra cores in the computer.  Until now it was exceedingly difficult for a developer to create multithreaded code.  The overhead and headaches involved with pthread's and mutexes can be enormous (as I know, having to deal with them day to day).  How many cores are on the machine?  How many are actually available.  I might take a great deal of time to implement a threaded design to improve performance on one machine, just to find it hinders performance on another.  Yuck.  This is why so many programs are single threaded and waste all of that extra processing power your Mac has to offer.

With Snow Leopard, all of that changes.  Now it becomes very easy for the developer to write his code in such a way that it will dynamically take advantage of extra cores (if they exist) and to skip it otherwise.  In this day where processor speeds are beginning to plateau but processor and core numbers are increasing, this is the best path forward for application design.

There are several technologies available to the Mac developer to choose from. The Cocoa developer will like find Grand Central, an Objective-C based approach which will make multithreaded development a breeze.  This is a great improvement over the creaky NSOperation class formerly available.  For graphics and mathematical developers, the new OpenCL API takes great advantage of the hardware's power and speed, particularly for the GPU.  The C++ developer will likely find gcc 4.2's OpenMP protocol (a cross-platform API) to be just what the doctor ordered.  And unlike the other options I just mentioned, this is open source so is publicly available now.  I gave a brief code example of its use an article last year.


Carbon Dating Yourself

For those who have not gotten the message yet, a look at this past WWDC schedule would see now Carbon session, only two labs (and both of these as transitions to Cocoa).  I too am finding it a bit painful to kick the Carbon habit, as it has been my fluency back to the original Toolbox days of the mid 1980's.  Unfortunately, Steve Jobs has spoken, and he has dealt a death blow to Carbon.  We may mourn, but we also must move on.

The Cocoa framework itself seems interesting enough, but it's simply getting past that damn fugly Objective-C syntax which is the hard part.  When your eyes wince at reading such code, it is not a very attractive proposition.  Luckily, you have Uncle Jonathan here willing to take one for the team for you.  Next month, I will spend an entire column devoted to C/C++ programmers and how to minimize the pain of Objective-C and exactly what all those damn brackets really mean.


Watch Your Language

If after all the brainwashing and Kool Aid you still don't like Objective-C, fear not.  With the latest versions of Xcode, you will be able to develop first class applications using alternative languages such as Ruby, Python and even AppleScript.  Start with Interface Builder to create your GUI, but simply use your language of choice for coding.  Although Onjective-C remains the favorite son (getting all the cool new features first), there is no reason you should ignore these alternatives if they suit your needs.  I will spend time in a future article on this particular feature.


A Kernel of Truth

At WWD 2007, Steve Jobs claimed that Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard was 64-Bit "Top to Bottom".  Well, sadly, this was simply untrue.  Despite the claims, the OS kernel in Leopard remained 32-bit.  As of Snow Leopard though, the 64-bit kernel will arrive and save Steve from his departures from reality.  For most developers, this change will be transparent, as 32- and 64-bit apps will continue to run side-by-side.  However, those writing kernel extensions will have to change their compiler options from two-way Fat to three-way Fat.  (No PPC-64 kernel ever existed, so this architecture can be ignored).  More on this also in a future column.



Coming Up Next Month:  Too embarrassed to ask what all that Objective-C grunge means?  Don't Panic, I will hold your hand through to get you to understand what Objective C is all about.  See you in 30!


To see a list of all the According to Hoyle columns, visit: