We’re nearing 32-bit-ageddon with the release of macOS 10.15 Catalina sometime in October 2019. The new version of macOS marks the end of old 32-bit apps whose software code was never refreshed to support 64-bit CPUs. In June 2018, Apple confirmed the end of 32-bit apps, noting that 10.14 Mojave would be the last operating system to allow them to run (see “macOS 10.14 Mojave Will Be the Last to Support 32-Bit Apps,” 12 June 2018). That time has now arrived.
Apple began putting 64-bit processors in Macs starting around 2006 and shifted to greater OS support for 64-bit apps a decade ago with 10.6 Snow Leopard. However, many apps weren’t worth the time or money for developers to refresh with 64-bit support.
Happily, you can still upgrade to Catalina without losing access to older apps, thanks to virtualization. All you have to do is run Mojave in a virtual machine to keep your older software functioning. It makes sense to use Mojave, rather than an earlier macOS release, because Mojave will receive security updates longer than older versions of the operating system.
I currently recommend using Parallels Desktop 15 for Mac for Catalina-ready virtualization. When this article was first published, VMware Fusion wasn’t yet Catalina-compatible, but the just-released version 11.5 may work—see “VMware Fusion 11.5,” 23 September 2019). The open-source VirtualBox is also an option, but it’s appropriate mostly for those with a strong interest in reading forum posts and staying up on the technical issues.
I tested installing Mojave from scratch in Parallels Desktop and copying over a few apps I still rely on and want to keep available once I upgrade to Catalina.
Use Parallels Desktop to Run Mojave
Parallels Desktop is an affordable option compared to keeping an older Mac in service, and it has been in continuous development for many years. The current release of Parallels Desktop 15 for Mac costs $79.99 for home and student use and $99.99 per year for the Pro and Business editions.
The annual fee for Parallels Desktop Pro and Business editions includes major updates. Users of the home/student version will have to pay an upgrade fee each time Parallels releases a substantive update, likely an annual event that will take place in conjunction with each newly named version of macOS. Parallels charges $49.99 for upgrades from previous versions to the Catalina-compatible Parallels Desktop 15.
For average users, the home/student edition is sufficient. It limits virtualized RAM to 8 GB and supports up to four virtual CPUs. You can install not just Mojave, but also Windows 10, Linux variants, and older macOS releases. (Parallels provides a full list of differences between the editions.)
Parallels offers a free 14-day trial, which I recommend using to follow the steps below before Catalina ships so you can be fully set up if you ultimately decide to go down this path. That’s partly because it becomes harder to obtain an older macOS installer after Apple updates to the next release. With Parallels Desktop and Mojave set up, you can decide later if you want to pay after the trial expires.
Parallels Desktop fully supports the direct installation of Mojave, relying on the Recovery partition that’s part of macOS. After installing Parallels Desktop, in the Installation Assistant, scroll to the right through the operating system choices and click the button that reads “Install macOS 10.14.6 Using the Recovery Partition.” Follow a variety of macOS prompts to enable various system-level controls, such as allowing a kernel extension and enabling Accessibility for Parallels Desktop in the Security & Privacy preference pane.
Parallels Desktop then opens a virtual-machine window showing macOS Recovery, where you select the option to reinstall macOS. The Mojave installation proceeds in its virtual window just as though you were performing it on a hardware device. In my testing, I didn’t need to babysit it but just let it run for a while. I then proceeded to set up macOS as normal within the virtual-machine window.
When you’re done, you have a version of Mojave into which you can install or copy apps. You may need to dig up an installer and original serial number for some apps; for others, you can just drag them into the Mojave virtual-machine window. (Be sure to install Parallel Tools after Mojave finishes booting—click the triangular yellow alert icon in the window’s upper-right corner—because it allows direct drag-and-drop copies.) For both installed and copied apps, try to bring over preferences and other associated files, which may require consulting the documentation or asking for help in an online support forum. This can prevent you from having to re-enter license codes or reconfigure settings.
There is one critical part of virtual machines you need to be aware of: Cloud-hosted backup software like Backblaze and CrashPlan will not archive virtual-machine files by default. TidBITS publisher Adam Engst wrote about this situation when CrashPlan began excluding virtual machines from its backups earlier this year, and his “Backing Up VM Image Files to Internet Backup Services” (15 May 2019) offers extensive advice about how to ensure you can restore your virtual machine in the event of a drive failure.
If you’d like to delay installing Parallels Desktop for now, make sure to download a copy of the Mojave installer before Catalina ships. macOS Recovery always retrieves the latest version of macOS that a given Mac can run, so you may not be able to force a Mojave installation after Catalina’s release. (Technically speaking, you can use macOS Recovery to install either the latest version or the version that came with your Mac.)
Here’s how to download the Mojave installer: In the Mac App Store listing for macOS Mojave, click the Get button. That causes Mojave’s Software Update preference pane to open and prompt you to download the installer instead of looking for an update. Later, you can install Parallels Desktop, which has a simple procedure to install macOS directly from an installer.
Find Outdated Apps to Copy Over
If you’re still routinely running 32-bit apps, you’ll know. After each restart, Mojave will warn you the first time you launch any app that isn’t 64-bit compatible. The message says, “This app is not optimized for your Mac and needs to be updated.”
You can obtain a complete list of which of your apps will no longer work in three different ways.
The easiest method relies on Apple’s built-in System Information utility. Follow these steps:
- Hold down Option and choose System Information from the Apple menu.
- Under the Software category in the left-hand sidebar, click Applications. It takes System Information a while to generate the list.
- Click the 64-Bit column at the top to sort apps by compatibility, and examine the list of apps that have No in that column.
Jon Gotow of St. Clair Software has released a free utility called Go64 that goes beyond System Information in a few important ways. Go64:
- Identifies 32-bit components inside otherwise 64-bit apps that won’t work in Catalina and could cause confusion when certain features fail
- Can show either just apps or all executables, which include command-line tools and frameworks
- Reveals when you last used each app, which could tell you if it’s one you’ll miss
- Provides toolbar buttons that let you show identified apps in the Finder, trash them, visit the developer’s site, or do a Web search for more information
Howard Oakley has written a pair of free apps that identify 32-bit code: 32-bitCheck and ArchiChect. 32-bitCheck is much like Go64, but not as quick and with a more utilitarian interface. However, you might find ArchiChect useful because it lets you check a particular app by dropping it on ArchiChect’s icon. Don’t interpret the checkboxes at the top as user controls—rather, they identify the app as 32-bit or 64-bit.
Installing 32-bit Apps
For most older apps, developers are never going to release updates. If they had ever intended to, they would have done so years ago. In other cases, updates may be available, but you may not wish to use them due to feature-set changes.
There may still be some last-minute reprieves, though. Jim Matthews, the developer of Fetch, decided he could shift the interface part of his app into a 64-bit framework and release a fully 64-bit version of Fetch (see “Fetch Celebrates 30 Years,” 6 September 2019). He has Fetch 5.8 in beta testing now, with most features implemented, and he plans to release a free update when he has nearly every feature from the 32-bit version ported to the new release.
Personally, I rely on three 32-bit apps: Mailsmith for email, Labels & Addresses for creating package labels for shipping, and Quicken 2007 for accounting. Rich Siegel has kept his text-only email client going as a free side project for several years, and Intuit similarly kept 2007 working with macOS updates because it still has features missing from the modern version of Quicken (now owned by Quicken Inc.—see “Quicken Purchased from Intuit by H.I.G. Capital,” 4 March 2016). Belight Software has opted not to update Labels & Addresses but is moving some of its features into Swift Publisher.
For these three apps, I was able to drag them over to my Mojave virtual machine, copy their preferences, and launch them successfully. Quicken’s preferences were in
~/Library/Preferences/Quicken 2007 Preferences; Mailsmith keeps its secrets in
~/Mail/Mailsmith User Data. Belight has the most modern preference style and location:
Even with the limits of the home/student edition of Parallels Desktop, these apps run nearly as quickly within the virtual machine as they currently do on my 2018 iMac with 32 GB of RAM.
I’ll continue to use Quicken and Labels & Addresses in the virtual machine. For Mailsmith, the writing is on the wall, but I want to have easy access to search archived email until such point as I migrate to a new email client.
In the end, I’m as big a fan as the next person of moving forward, but if you can’t find a replacement for a favorite tool, why give up on it? Parallels Desktop isn’t expensive for what it enables. You can even use it in reverse: If you’re not ready to switch to Catalina, install Catalina within a virtual machine and test it out while maintaining your existing Mojave (or earlier) environment.