McNeelİs Flying Circus
Published 01 July 2008
|Written by Martyn Day|
Page 1 of 2
While many big CAD vendors wielding hefty corporate marketing budgets have come and gone in the past 20 years, small developer Robert McNeel & Associates has managed to carve out its own niche with Rhino and AccuRender. Martyn Day recently visited the companyİs Seattle HQ.
Having written about CAD and design technology for the best part of twenty years, you canİt help but get very familiar with the inner workings of the CAD developers, how development happens, marketing is oriented, and how the route to market and sales are achieved.
There are a few basic models and principles that seem to permeate through 99% of the industry. But then there is Robert McNeel and Associates, a company that appears to swim against this tide like an Alaskan Salmon dodging all the hungry bears to the spawning grounds. The consensus from competitors is that it shouldnİt exist the way it is run, but somehow it does and very successfully.
Iİve known Bob McNeel for the best part of my journalistic career and you donİt have to look much further to discover the reason for McNeel & Associateİs different take on the market. Bob McNeel is a trained accountant who fell into what turned out to be a very successful AutoCAD dealership in Seattle back in the Ùgood old daysİ of early AutoCAD.
McNeel hit my radar when his company started to develop AutoCAD add-ons and I reviewed AccuRender, its photorealistic Ùinside AutoCADİ renderer when it was launched in the UK market.
A few years later McNeel began to develop a 3D NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B-Spline) modelling package named Rhino. For years it was in development and the betas were all given away for free. I remember talking with Bob McNeel on what the give-away business model was about.
At that time nobody gave software away and people were telling him that he was insane to do it. Bob was happy to get the software out there for people to find uses for it and let that drive development. After three years Rhino eventually went commercial for a very reasonable price and, against all odds, the people who had been using it for free started to buy it. Today, McNeel claims to have 250,000 Rhino users worldwide, covering diverse industries such as marine, apparel, product design, jewellery design, analysis, CAM and architecture.
McNeel & Associates is now out of the AutoCAD dealership game. Autodesk moved to limit dealers selling out of fixed distance from their offices, which reduced their potential to grow, unless they opened multiple offices. Then the move to AutoCAD verticals arrived, with ever increasing targets, and with the Rhino software business growing the AutoCAD/ Autodesk relationship terminated. However, old and new clients still request AutoCAD training on old versions of AutoCAD.
Since Rhino was launched, McNeel & Associates has built a whole ecosystem around Rhino and its rendering products. In many ways itİs like Autodesk in the early days, with the vendor working on the core product and the third-party developers plugging into the application and adding functionality to tailor it to a specific vertical. There are already well over a thousand developers working with Rhino and extending its functionality around the world. McNeel has also expanded its range of products, adding other animals, such as Flamingo, a ray trace and radiosity rendering engine for Rhino, and Penguin for a conceptual sketch look and feel, as well as stylised renderings.
Then there is Bongo for animations and Brazil, a Splutterfish rendering add-on for Rhino. For those with multiple licenses, there is a product called ÙZooİ to manage your software.
McNeel and Associates continues its commitment to broad free beta software and within weeks of a release being formalised, the next generation of technologies under development usually get shipped as a beta. With Version 4 out, version 5 is available on the companyİs Labs page.
For those of us that are long in the tooth, and pre-dating McNeelİs fascination with animals, AccuRender was probably the first scan-line rendering application we used in AutoCAD. It had fractal trees, textures galore and quick results. Even though Autodesk competed aggressively against it, it ended up owning its own OEM license when it acquired Revit, as AccuRender was built-in as the default renderer.
In fact, Autodesk has only just replaced AccuRender in Revit with mental ray. That actually seemed to nark Bob McNeel as Autodesk failed to update the rendering engine for years, despite their license agreement allowing them to include the latest versions.
While the name might be old, the technology is not and has always been updated. McNeel and Associates has expanded its reach too under the guise of AccuRender nXt ± the next generation. Scheduled to work with AutoCAD 2007- 2009, AutoCAD 64-bit, SketchUp, Revit, Rhino and IntelliCAD, the next AccuRender is in development and beta participation is free.
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