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National Instruments to Apple Mac: Buh-Bye

National Instruments (NI) recently released a new version of its LabView test automation programming environment for the latest Apple Macintosh computers based on the Arm-based Apple M1 CPU/GPU SoC. At the same time, NI let its customers know that this release would be the last one for Apple Macintosh computers, sending a shock through some portion of the company’s customer base. Here’s the text of the email NI sent to its customers:

Dear NI Customer

According to our records, you have purchased or renewed a license for LabVIEW on macOS.  We are writing to inform you that the latest version of this software, LabVIEW 2023 Q3 on macOS, has just recently been released and is now available from NI.com.  This version has support for all current Apple-silicon-based chipsets, and the most recent release of macOS.  We hope you find the product provides everything you need to create a first-class test system.

In addition, we are informing you that this will be the final release of LabVIEW on macOS.  Starting with releases in 2024, LabVIEW will continue to be available on Windows and Linux OSes. We understand that this change of availability likely impacts your active and future plans. We have the following alternatives available for you to consider.

The VIs from the macOS LabVIEW version will port easily to LabVIEW on Windows and Linux, often without changes.  In addition, the LabVIEW for macOS that you purchased includes the right to download and use LabVIEW on Windows and LabVIEW on Linux as well, so you don’t need to buy any additional software to do these migrations.

If you are unable or do not wish to, move your development to Windows or Linux computers, you can continue using the LabVIEW 2023 Q3 for macOS development system indefinitely.  LabVIEW 2023 Q3 on macOS has no licensing restrictions that will prevent it from launching beyond any future date so you may continue developing test systems in LabVIEW on macOS indefinitely.  New licenses will not be able to be purchased after March 1, 2024, and NI will stop providing mainstream support for it beyond this date.  At your request, beyond March 1, 2024, if your product had originally been purchased as a subscription, NI will convert it into a perpetual license for your continued use.

The reason that this message was likely a shock to some NI customers is that LabView has been a Macintosh application since day one. Dr. James Truchard (Dr. T), a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, founded NI in 1976 along with Jeff Kodosky and Bill Nowlin. The trio recognized the growing use of computers to control test systems and to analyze and present the data being produced by these systems. The company’s first product was an HPIB/GPIB/IEEE-488 interface board for the Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11. This board marked NI’s initial foray into software-based instrumentation systems.

NI first released LabView in October 1986. At the time of this initial release, LabView ran exclusively on the Apple Macintosh because, according to Kodowsky, “it was the only computer that had a 32-bit operating system, and it had the graphics we needed.” In fact, NI also introduced some early instrument controllers that incorporated an entire motherboard from an Apple Macintosh, because that was the only way to clone Apple’s hardware and operating system. That was back when Apple based its Macintosh product line on Motorola Semiconductor’s MC68000 microprocessor family. Since then, Apple has changed out the Macintosh CPU roughly every decade – going from the MC68000, to the PowerPC, to the Intel x86 family, and finally to Apple’s home-grown, multicore M1. NI has faithfully tracked these tectonic changes to the Apple Macintosh architecture, until now.

However, times change. Dr. T retired in 2017. Apple no longer has a monopoly on 32-bit operating systems or graphics display hardware. Both Microsoft Windows and Linux offer 64-bit OS capabilities, and PC-centric graphics hardware has become extremely capable thanks to the long-time rivalry between Nvidia and AMD. Apple simply never established a large presence in the engineering community; the company simply offered the most advanced OS and graphics hardware when the first version of LabView was being developed. Add to this the recent finalization of NI’s acquisition by Emerson and you have the ideal setup for a house cleaning at NI. The termination of LabView software development for Apple computers is likely not the only sweep we will see from Emerson’s broom at NI. I’d expect more changes in the future as NI’s business is aligned with Emerson’s.

LabView’s importance to test and measurement cannot be overstated. It was the first graphical programming language designed exclusively for test systems. The language has been continually expanded and improved for nearly 40 years and features more than 7000 software drivers for instruments from many vendors as well as support for custom, FPGA-based instruments. LabView supports many instrument interfaces starting with IEEE-488 and extending to MXI, PXI, USB, Ethernet, and probably a few more interfaces that don’t immediately come to mind.

I’ve attended a couple of the annual NIWeek (now renamed NI Connect) events and seen thousands of excited LabView fans cheer loudly as every new feature in the latest release was announced, no matter how minor. Except for the crowd size, you’d think you were amongst Swifties at a Taylor Swift concert from all the screaming and yelling. Will Emerson be able to hold onto this sort of devoted loyalty? We’ll see if the annual pilgrimages to Austin, Texas by loyal LabView fans continue.

Alternatives to LabView do exist. For example, there’s Flojoy, a Python-based graphical test language that bills itself as “a modern, open-source replacement for data acquisition and robotics control software like [NI’s] LabVIEW & Simulink [from MathWorks].” Flojoy runs on the Apple Macintosh as well as on Microsoft Windows and Linux. Keysight (formerly Agilent, formerly HP) offers VEE, which is a graphical measurement and analysis programming environment that runs on Microsoft Windows. However, LabView is the granddaddy of graphical test and measurement languages with the largest user base and the most instrument drivers. If that’s what you need and you’re using Apple computers to run the software, you’d best be planning your migration path from Macintosh to PC hardware if you want to stay current with future LabView enhancements.

References:

Dick Selwood, “What Part of the Elephant Do You Recognise? National Instruments Passes an Historic Milestone,” EEJournal, February 1, 2017.

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