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The Future: Apple Moving to ARM-based Macs in 2021

Apple is poised to make the move to custom design processors for its Macs and will tap its elite experience in ARM-based chip design to empower Mac computers to go places it deems it cannot get to by sticking with Intel.

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Software Impacts

Importantly, future ARM-based Macs will not run iOS as its operating system but rather the regular macOS built for ARM. Apple has likely had macOS written for ARM-chips for several years, just as Steve Jobs said Mac OS X was written and compiled for Intel x86 since the first versions of Mac OS X.

Project Kalamata is reported to have been in the works for years, perhaps going back to 2012.

For professional software in the CAD/BIM/3D industries, in order for those packages to be built for future Macs running on Apple’s own ARM-based A-series chips, certain basic foundational software components would need to be changed and rewritten. Here’s a basic run-down:

Graphics APIs

Today’s CAD software generally produces its 3D visualizations to the computer screen using the open industry standard OpenGL API (application programming interface). Architosh has written extensively about OpenGL, WebGL, OpenGL ES (mobile OSs), and new low-level graphics APIs like Vulkan, Apple’s Metal, and Microsoft’s DirectX.

Some companies have written their own OpenGL rendering engines—like Vectorworks’s VGM—while other companies build software using software libraries from sources like Tech Soft 3D’s HOOPS Visualize. In each case, the code work behind graphics engines is intensive and forces developers in this kind of situation to spend development resources on “plumbing” and OS work rather than on building features for users.

Geometry Kernels 

Another major factor behind CAD/BIM/3D applications is geometry engines, the software that enables 3D modeling functions to exist in an application. A few giants in this space dominate the market and hundreds of solutions are built on geometry kernels like Dassault Systemes’ subsidiary Spatial and its ACIS Modeling kernel. Another pivotal kernel is Parasolid by Siemens. And there are others, including software developers who have built their own geometry modeling engines like Autodesk and Graphisoft.

Rendering Engines

A 3D CAD developer needs a geometry engine (kernel) to allow 3D modeling functionalities, a way to push these visualizations to computer screens and hence “graphics APIs,” and finally rendering engines to provide advanced photo-realistic visuals. While rendering engines exist, many of the best renderers are proprietary engines, either biased or unbiased variety.

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Thankfully, Unity and Epic with its Unreal Engine have entered the professional markets, and because they already serve the vast gamers’ universe, those pro solutions that can tap into their visualization engines maybe some of the first solutions in the future world of ARM-based Macs.

Other Software Libraries

Other software components that make the CAD/BIM/3D world go around on all platforms involve physics engines, solvers, digital terrain modelers, GIS systems, middleware for talking to CNC machines, including 3D printers, additive manufacturing machinery, robot and robotic arm systems, 3D laser scanners, and much much more.

Recently Architosh published a large list of plugins for the AAD (algorithms-aided design) tool Grasshopper. The list was particularly focused on macOS compatible plugins for McNeel’s Grasshopper. Plugins and extensions to larger applications enrich those larger applications. While AutoCAD returned to the Mac nearly a decade ago, the amount of plugins or add-ons for it on the Mac side is minuscule to those available on the Windows side. One of the most popular tools for landscape architects, LandF/X, is an AutoCAD-based OEM package that is not available for the Mac version even though it is very possible and reasonable that it could be.

In Closing

The big point is this: it takes years for essential software solutions and libraries used in larger solutions to fully develop. The big work of shifting codebases from macOS on Intel to macOS on ARM architecture chips is not trivial and it will have impacts on the selection of professional CAD/BIM/3D solutions available for Mac users for years to come. Hopefully, the CAD/BIM/3D industries will not loose to much native software for the Mac, but there will be casualties.

Tim Cook and folks on stage in Steve Jobs Theater can spin the virtues of ARM all day long—and there will be many, especially performance—but these kinds of OS chip architecture changes take a toll on available software. The reason why it didn’t take a toll as badly last time is because Apple moved to Intel where most of the world’s software already existed. Now they are moving away from that world. That’s a pity because the Mac has slowly been building up towards parity with Windows.

On the flipside, Macs running ARM-based processors can more easily run native iOS apps alongside macOS apps. This benefit, plus the virtues that can come from more innovative and faster computers, should hopefully expand Apple’s computer market share beyond 10 percent. If they can capture 20 percent or more, far more developers will have greater incentive to commit to writing native macOS apps for ARM-based Macs, and the pro markets on Mac can recover the apps they lost in the process.

Postscript Mac Chips in America?

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) will be producing the new Mac chips. It is reported that the new chips will be manufactured on a 5-nanometer process, same as the upcoming iPhone and iPad. Architosh also noted last week that TSMC is building a new $12 billion chip plant in the United States, but it will not open until 2024. That plant is expected to build 5-nm chips. While Apple may move to 3-nm chips for its smallest devices as soon as possible, professional desktop Macs with ample available space compared to mobile devices could afford to feature bigger 5-nm chips for some time, essentially making the chips larger and more power-hungry in the name of performance. This could mean the TSMC plant in America could be, eventually, the manufacturing location for some or all of Apple’s future Mac chips.

For its iPhone and iPad devices, which sell in far greater volume, the new American plant will not only not offer the cutting edge 3-nanometer process technology, it may also not be capable of the volume requirements for iPhone and iPad. But Macs sell at much smaller numbers, so conceivably it could serve Mac chip needs from 2024 on.

[Editor’s note: this article was edited for minor changes on 22 Jun 2020.]

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Reader Comments

  1. […] The Future: Apple Moving to ARM-based Macs in 2021  Architosh “iphone rumors when:1d” – Google News […]

  2. Posted by:
    Rob Pfaffmann
    June 27, 2020 01:53 pm EDT

    This will be a disaster for CAD-BIM software on Mac if they eliminate the laptop high end behind. This will cause Mac software to be left behind because of market share. Just look at Bluebeam. As Vectorworks users highly invested in the software we will probably get screwed for our loyalty to the platform and software.

  3. Hello, Rob. Thanks for sharing your concerns and views. From what I’ve been told and published, Bluebeam needed to concentrate all of its developer resources on a web browser-based version of Revu. So they axed the Mac version to grab those developers to work on the future version. I just heard there is no official time table for this version. So Mac users are very much left in the lurch by Bluebeam, especially since Revu for Mac 2.x is not very stable under Catalina.

    That condition was not driven by Apple moving to ARM, however. It was driven by Bluebeam facing an onslaught of competition in the construction technology market by Autodesk BIM 360, Procore, and other solutions that are fully web-based, including Bentley’s new web-based ProjectWise 365 (good article if you are thinking about a CDE for your practice).

  4. A couple more thoughts, Rob.

    I seriously doubt Apple would have invested the time it spend on the 3rd generation new Mac Pro (2019 version) if they were not serious about the pro markets. That investment includes manufacturing investments, including gearing its Austin, Texas facility as the global final assembly point for the new Mac Pro. I have shared in our Xpresso newsletter (which you should consider subscribing to!) details about Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and their new US fab they are building my thoughts about it being highly suited for Apple’s custom silicon for its Macs. The US location would allow Apple to station staff there for test manufacturing and some degree of tighter control on upcoming processors that Apple clearly wants to keep close to its chest.

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