Design tools on the Apple Mac

12 March 2009

It’s been brewing for years, but finally a platform long dormant in the 3D design world is making a break for the mainstream. Al Dean comes clean and professes his love for all
things Apple flavoured

It started in San Francisco, just a little over a year ago. A weekend was spent enjoying the sights, sounds and if I’m totally honest, the bars, of one of the world’s great cities. Just as we were in the final stages of launching DEVELOP3D, I knew I had to buy a new laptop. The usual workflow for this sort of thing means load up Dell.com, whip out the credit card and order - it arrives in plain paper packaging a week later and away you go. Job done.

But on visiting the Apple Store in San Francisco, with a little post-hangover/lunchtime beer buzz, I had, what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity. After decades of ridiculing them, of teasing the many graphics designers I’ve worked with about their one-button mouse, I did it. I took a turn to the dark side and did something I swore I’d never do. I bought a Mac.

I panicked for the first few months, immediately installing Bootcamp and XP so I could run all those ‘business critical’ applications - Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, as well as all those lovely 3D CAD apps. I needed to have my Windows comfort blanket. After all, that is how things are done in the design world if you’re serious about developing products using 3D tools. Right? However, more and more I found myself opting for the Mac OS X boot option. And slowly and surely I found myself being seduced by the shiny interface, the more elegant way of working and the delight that is multi-touch.

The majority of the CAD-using world will continue to rely on Windows hardware to make things happen, but for those that adopt the Apple platform it soon becomes much more than just another computer

Looking back, it seems odd that I, the Windows zealot, would get hooked by such things. After all, 3D technology is my driving passion and the reason I decided to get involved in DEVELOP3D. So adopting a platform that seemingly has very little in the way tools for that process, would seem counter intuitive.

But the interesting fact is, it does. And the trend of the last six months has made that move somewhat prescient. While I’ll never claim to have any form of crystal ball gazing abilities, it seems that I, along with a growing number in the industry, could see that the Apple platform offers some real potential.

Let’s put things right. There have been many 3D design tools available for the Mac for quite some time. Ashlar Vellum has been developing its range of hybrid modelling tools for the platform for decades. SolidThinking, enjoying somewhat of a renaissance following the acquisition by Altair Engineering, has been on the Mac for a similar length of time.

But things have also stepped up of late. Both old names and new are jumping on the bandwagon. Perhaps the biggest irony is that Siemens released NX on the Mac platform a couple of years ago. It’s ironic because Apple uses NX to develop the majority of its products, but historically had to use Windows due to a lack of Apple support. Many see this as the sole reason that NX is now appearing on OS X, but having just installed and worked with NX 6, and the inherent Synchronous Technology it contains, it works nicely on the platform.

Furthermore, this month alone, we’ve seen that Autodesk, after a 15 year hiatus, is jumping back on the bandwagon in a big way. Maya and SketchBook Pro have been on OS X for some time, but the company is expanding things not only with its CGI-focussed tools like Mudbox, but with a suite of industrial design tools including AliasStudio, which is to debut on the platform later this year.

Then of course, there’s Rhino. That ever present, ever popular, but strangely quiet, surface modelling system which has gained a massive following in many industry sectors. McNeel announced ‘iRhino’ over two years ago and it’s been in a long and extensive beta program ever since. However, the system is looking very stable, very slick and can’t be long off from its official launch.

Alongside the core 3D design tools, there are many other related applications around. Bunkspeed shipped HyperShot for OS X some time ago and it stacks up very nicely in comparison, particularly with the high end Mac Pro, eight core workstations. There’s there’s Luxology and its Modo system, which has been OS X-native for a long time.

So why now? Why is this trend growing? The answer, I suspect, is that Apple has achieved something that very few companies, let alone computing hardware manufacturers, ever have. It has got the ‘cool’ factor. The fan base is huge - the volumes that the company is shifting year on year, is growing and growing massively.

The majority of the CAD-using world will continue to rely on generic Windows hardware to make things happen - that’s economics - but for the majority of those that adopt Apple and the Mac platform, it soon becomes much more than just another computer.

If there’s one thing that irks me about the whole thing, it’s that Apple, in all its polo necked, black sweater, white out retail space, coolness, is ignoring a market that offers huge potential. Design is cool but, on the whole, engineering is not so it becomes a much harder sell. However, despite Apple’s apparent reluctance to promote itself in this sector, there seems to be a groundswell of interest anyway.

I’ll be reporting on my Mac + 3D CAD adventures regularly on the develop3d.com blog, so please drop by and let us know your thoughts. Because I can guarantee, brothers and sisters, that once you buy Mac, you never go back.

Al Dean is Editor of DEVELOP3D. With three ipods, a Mac Book Air and an obsession with iPhones, he is currently undergoing specialist counselling to help deal with his Apple addiction.     

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