Some Mac software has made it all the way from 68K to M1 – here’s why


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Mac developers are currently in the midst of a major hardware architecture transition. But for some app makers, this is the third time that they have done this.

After years of rumors, Apple announced the transition to first-party Apple Silicon chips in 2020. Then the first Macs with a proprietary M1 processor launched in November — and apps started taking advantage of the new speed.

Although the transition is expected to take two years in total, Apple offered a system and devices to make the process easier on both consumers and developers. Existing apps that work with macOS Big Sur can — at least in theory — simply run as normal on M1.

But developers can also rebuild their software to make them native M1 apps. Even before anyone could buy an Apple Silicon Mac to try out, Apple issued a Developer Transition Kit and made app recompiling straightforward in the latest release of Xcode.

For many macOS app developers, this may be the first change in processor technology that they’ve experienced. Other developers have been down this road in the past, though.

And for a select number of developers, this road has actually been travelled three times before.

A familiar transition

Back in 1992, the Mac was eight years old and still running on versions of the original Motorola 68000 processor. Though Apple had internally started the shift to PowerPC the year before, it would take until 1994 for the new Macs to come out.

It was a successful move in terms of just how smoothly it had been handled for customers, developers, and Apple itself. However, this transition to PowerPC instead of Intel was ultimately deemed a mistake by then-CEO John Sculley. In his view, Apple ultimately wasn’t able to compete on price against Intel-equipped PCs made by other manufacturers.

Once that hardware transition was done, and after a couple of acquisitions including Steve Jobs’ NeXT, Apple was soon moving to replace the old MacOS 9 with the radically different OS X. Again, Apple managed the transition for users by making it possible to keep running older apps.

What those users, and perhaps most app developers, did not know then was that when Apple brought out OS X, it was already looking to move to…