What the Mac 32-bit app phase-out means to you

Apple has been pushing developers to move their software to 64-bit since last summer. Now it's warning end users about the upcoming change. Here's how to suss out which apps are affected.

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With the release of macOS 10.13.4, Apple has begun warning Mac owners when they run 32-bit applications, a step toward the eventual banishment of such software.

Among the most visible enterprise programs spawning such warnings? The no-longer-supported Office for Mac 2011.

"To ensure that the apps you purchase are as advanced as the Mac you run them on, all future Mac software will eventually be required to be 64-bit," Apple wrote in a support document published last week. The warnings were the first messaging about future 64-bit exclusivity aimed at end users.

word is 32 bit Apple

This alert popped up when Word from Office for Mac 2011 launched as a reminder that 32-bit applications will eventually stop working.

Apple's 64-bit push began at WWDC

Developers got the word in June 2017 at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). There, Apple told programmers that macOS 10.13, aka "High Sierra" and the year's free upgrade, would be the final version that would "run 32-bit apps without compromise."

The on-screen alert is much less explicit than either the support document or Apple's advice to developers nearly a year ago. The message simply stated, "'XX' is not optimized for your Mac" - where the name of the application took the XX spot - and "This app needs to be updated by the developer to improve compatibility." The alert offers two buttons, labeled "Learn More..." and "OK;" the former opened a new browser tab displaying the support document, while the latter closed the dialog box.

To see a list of a Mac's existent 32-bit applications, users should click "About This Mac" from the Apple menu, then click the button marked "System Report."

From there, scroll down to the "Software" section in the left-hand pane, then click on "Applications." Next, locate the column headed "62-Bit (Intel)" at the far right and click on it to put the list into ascending order, and the 32-bit applications at the top.

Those 32-bit applications will each be marked "No" in the 62-Bit (Intel) column. (Users may need to widen the System Reports' window and/or drag some column dividers toward the left to make the 62-Bit (Intel) column visible.)

Mac system report Apple

The Mac will list every 32-bit application in the System Report. (They're the ones marked "No" in the right-most column.)

What happens next?

There's no reason to panic, first of all. The day when the Mac won't run 32-bit apps is off in an undisclosed future. But at some point, Apple will drop the hammer - assuming macOS continues to be regularly upgraded - and refuse to launch those older applications.

(The on-screen 32-bit alerts, which run only once for each eligible application, are less about informing users of an impending change than another way to prod developers to get on the job of transforming their work to 64-bit. That was clear from a message Apple pitched to developers a day before it activated the warnings, reminding them that it was about to do so, and implying that they should prepare for an uptick in customer queries.)

Apple suggested that users "check with the software developer to see if 64-bit versions of your favorite titles are available." A search engine comes in handy here, with search strings such as "64-bit mac name of application" usually reporting results.

A cruise through a 32-bit app developer's website will be worth the while, as will be visits to the firm's support section and, if necessary, an email to the developer's support team asking about 64-bit availability - as well as a timeline, if that hasn't yet happened.

In corporate settings, this kind of investigation would typically be handled by the IT staff. But in smaller shops, workers may be responsible for uncovering app migrations to 64-bit. A common resource, like a shared document listing 64-bit availability, will make it easier to decentralize the work and circulate the results.

In general terms, the larger the developer, the more likely it has already made the move to 64-bit. Microsoft, for example, launched 64-bit versions of its Office apps - Word, Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint - in August 2016, automatically updating the suite's programs.

The 64-bit Office apps' predecessors, the Word and friends bundled as Office for Mac 2011, will likely be among the most prominent 32-bit standouts in the System Report list. The 2011 suite dropped off the support list in October; while Microsoft halted security updates, the applications continue to operate.

How much time does 32-bit have?

Apple has not committed to a timetable for scrubbing all 32-bit support in macOS. "The 64-bit transition for macOS and macOS apps is still underway, so final transition dates have not yet been established," Apple contended in the support document.

Also, in the mix is Apple's vague description of macOS High Sierra as the last version that will run 32-bit applications "without compromise." Without defining what it means by the phrase, it's impossible to know what Apple will do this fall, when it releases High Sierra's successor, and thus what constraints 32-bit software will operate under. The most likely impact? Those 32-bit applications will continue to run under at least macOS 10.14, whatever it's named, but performance, maybe stability as well, will degrade.

Developers have had to limit submissions to the Mac App Store to those supporting 64-bit since the end of January, and have, Apple has said, until June to do the same for apps already in the e-market. While those deadlines may hint at a quickly-looming 32-bit cut-off, Apple's mere cautions to developers intending to sell wares outside the Mac App Store - "We highly recommend distributing 64-bit binaries" - indicates a more uncertain end times.

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