Apple's Photoshop Killer

Three days ago, Adobe announced that Photoshop CS4’s 64-bit version will only be available on Windows. There won’t be a 64-Bit version of Photoshop for the Mac until CS5.

How Mac OS X came to be

To understand how this has happened, we need to go back a few years to the time before Mac OS X. In the early 90s, Apple was in a bad position. Its operating system was technically outdated. Several projects inside Apple, and several joint-ventures with other companies aimed at creating a successor to Apple’s operating system had failed. To avoid becoming dependent on a third-party operating system, Apple had to buy an OS. At the time, there were two options: Be’s BeOS and NeXT’s NeXTSTEP. Apple bought NeXT in 1997, bringing Steve Jobs back to the company as well as giving it a new operating system.

Soon thereafter, Apple announced its plan: Developers were basically forced to rewrite their applications in Objective-C for NeXT’s object-oriented, comparably modern APIs and frameworks (Apple rebranded it «Cocoa»). Third-party devs were understandably not pleased at all. In particular, Apple relied heavily on two third-party applications: Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop. Without these two applications, Mac OS X would be stillborn. Given Apple’s financial position at the time, chances were they could not survive such a disaster.

The Plan

Microsoft and Adobe must have made it pretty clear to Apple that they were not going to rewrite their applications for Cocoa, because soon after its first announcement, Apple announced a second API called Carbon. Carbon was essentially a port of the old, procedural pre-OS X Mac APIs. Using Carbon, developers could easily port their old Mac applications to Mac OS X without having to rewrite large parts of their code.

When the first end-user version of Mac OS X came out in 2001, it didn’t take too long for Carbon versions of most important Mac applications to come out, and all was well for Apple.

64 Bits

Today, we are looking at a similar transition as the one from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, albeit on a different level. For the last decade, most computers used 32 bits to address blocks of data in memory. Since each address has a fixed length of 32 bits, the number of individual addresses is limited. As memory has gotten bigger and bigger, computers are starting to run out of addresses for the individual blocks. To make it easy for computers to address larger memory spaces, we are switching to using 64 bits for each address.

To cope with these larger addresses, operating systems as well as applications have to be updated. As late as 2006, Apple’s story was that they would upgrade both Carbon and Cocoa to 64-bit versions, allowing all Mac applications exist as 64-bit versions. Adobe thus worked on a 64-bit version of Photoshop. Last June, Apple pulled the rug out from under them by killing the 64-bit version of Carbon.

This leaves Adobe with a year of wasted effort and no easy way to create a 64-bit version of Photoshop.

Apple’s intent was not malicious. In order to finish the iPhone in time, Apple might have pulled engineers from Leopard and had them work on the iPhone instead. It is likely that Apple either simply found out that they did not have the resources required to finish 64-bit Carbon in time, or thought their developers’ time would be better spent working on something else.

How can Apple afford to do this?

So how can Apple do this? Back when they moved from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, Microsoft and Adobe were able to force Apple’s hand. Why don’t they have that power anymore?

Apple learned a lot from that time. It’s a lot less dependent on outside developers today.


When looking at Microsoft, first of all it’s important to keep in mind that a 64-bit version of Office isn’t urgently needed. Office doesn’t have to cope with documents sized in the multi-gigabytes. Office works perfectly well in 32-bit Carbon, and will continue to do so for a long time, if Apple keeps 32-bit Carbon running.

Second, there’s iWork. While iWork isn’t a perfect replacement for Office, it works well enough for many people. Unlike in the 90s, it’s now possible to use a Mac that is free of Microsoft applications in almost any environment.


Adobe is a tougher nut to crack. While Apple has been competing with Adobe on many fronts such as video editing or photo management, they don’t have a Photoshop killer.

What Apple has been doing for the last few years, however, is create APIs that make it easier to create Photoshop-like applications. Using Apple’s Core Graphics frameworks, developers can create rudimentary graphics applications within days, and even small teams can create applications that can replace Photoshop in many cases. Pixelmator, to name one, was created by one single developer and one single user interface designer. Even in its first version, it does many things that Photoshop does. It even does a few things Photoshop doesn’t do. More importantly, it is improving quickly. While Pixelmator currently still lacks many features Photoshop users take for granted, there are new Pixelmator versions with more features almost monthly.

Here’s another thing Apple has done: its popular photo management software Aperture now supports plugins. There is nothing stopping a third-party developer from adding an image editor with many of Photoshop’s features right within Aperture.

As Apple continues to improve its graphics frameworks, it won’t need to create its own Photoshop competitor, because it will have an army of third-party Photoshop competitors.

This, I think, is why Apple was able to simply kill 64-bit Carbon: for the last decade, it has worked hard on becoming less reliant on Microsoft and Adobe. Delaying the 64-bit version of Photoshop by a year or two won’t hurt Apple at all.

If you require a short url to link to this article, please use

designed for use cover

But wait, there's more!

Want to read more like this? Buy my book's second edition! Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web is now available DRM-free directly from The Pragmatic Programmers. Or you can get it on Amazon, where it's also available in Chinese and Japanese.