ARM Macs with the Apple chip, custom Apple silicon based on the ARM architecture, will provide future Macs will advantage in the CAD and 3D markets. So who looks to be ready for prime time when the first ARM Mac—rumored to be an all-new iMac—ships later this year?
We definitely have some clues from the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference 2020 happening this week virtually. In various keynotes, state of the unions, and other videos (all are open to the public this week) we have seen pro CAD and 3D apps running on ARM Macs either natively or under Rosetta 2. (see: Architosh, “Rosetta 2.0 for Apple’s Intel-ARM Mac Transition?,” 22 June 2020).
While Apple has showcased both Adobe and Microsoft as being early to the ARM Mac development story, with their respective flagship apps under development for native ARM Macs, we also saw Maxon’s Cinema 4D shown during the WWDC Platforms State of the Union, which devoted a lot of time to the transition of Macs to the new Apple chip.
Autodesk Maya was also shown during WWDC running on an ARM Mac. Both of these two applications—Cinema 4D and Maya are leading 3D applications by some of the biggest software companies in the 3D software industry.
And to help get even more pro apps on ARM Macs, the Platforms State of the Union discussed Unity. Used for both game and pro app development, the Unity Editor is already being developed for Macs with custom Apple silicon. By next month, says Apple, Unity plans to release an updated Unity Editor that can support building Univeral apps.
Unity is an important 3D core technology provider to Autodesk, the world’s largest software provider of CAD and 3D software. Autodesk partnered with Unity a few years ago to bring its real-time photorealistic engine to Autodesk Revit workflows for the AEC industry. There are numerous AEC technology companies now looking at or working with Unity.
Faster CAD on ARM Macs
Apple’s ARM Macs may be the fastest CAD running machines in short order. Here’s why. When Autodesk demoed AutoCAD 360 on the iPad Pro a few years ago at an Apple event, the performance demonstrated was almost mindblowing. Autodesk’s Amy Bunzel said of the A9X powered iPad Pro at the time, “the device is really fast.”
We are building a family of SoCs designed for the unique needs of the Mac.
Apple’s silicon advantage over Intel isn’t just about performance over energy ratio advantages or TSMC’s superior process technology—the fact that Intel chips are at 14-nanometer versus the 7-nanometer and 5-nanometer process TSMC is delivering to Apple. Apple’s significant advantage is the marriage between software and custom silicon. Apple can build specific computational engines into its SoC (System on a Chip) processor. For example, Sri Santhanam, VP of Silicon Engineering Group, Apple, said that the ARM Macs would have their own Neural Engine, just like today’s iPhone and iPad, bringing them industry-leading machine learning capabilities to the Mac.
“We are building a family of SoCs designed for the unique needs of the Mac,” he says in the WWDC video. The Neural Engine on the future ARM Mac can handle “identification” items inside of large Building Information Modeling (BIM) models in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry. Already some BIM applications are tapping machine learning or AI for their ability to recognize a “window” for a window and not confuse it with some other geometry. This type of AI in software for architects means that designers can model more freely and let the software automatically identify and classify elements in the 3D models, saving the architect tons of time.
Apple Chip Readiness
Getting pro apps like CAD and 3D ready for ARM Macs isn’t entirely trivial. Those apps based on OpenGL must first be developed for Apple’s Metal API instead. And as we discussed in detail here on page three (Software Impacts), pro apps in the CAD and 3D graphics space rely on geometry kernels, rendering engines, and other critical software libraries that must be made compatible to have a fully native CAD or 3D app for ARM Macs.
In an upcoming feature on Vectorworks futures, Dr. Biplab Sarkar says that in the near future the Mac version of Vectorworks—the most popular CAD platform on the Mac—will utilize Metal over OpenGL. Vectorworks’s sister company Graphisoft, both of them sister companies of the aforementioned Cinema 4D, has a long history of delivering industry firsts with respect to both the Mac and the BIM industry it competes in. That company has a big announcement coming up on July 8-9.
Companies like Graphisoft and Autodesk that have largely relied on their own geometry engines may have an advantage in that they can internally port their own engine over to ARM architecture and not wait for a third party supplied-engine to have made that jump.
If we had to guess today which of the three mentioned CAD companies—Autodesk, Graphisoft, or Vectorworks—would get ready for an ARM Mac first, it would be a toss-up. Autodesk has already put AutoCAD on iOS, giving it a significant advantage, so that would be the smart Vegas bet. But don’t be surprised if it isn’t somebody else altogether who gets there first.