The Bass effect

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Under the tutelage of CEO Carl Bass, Autodesk, the world’s largest CAD software provider, has gone from a one-trick pony to a multi-platform, multi-industry specialist. At the company’s 2013 product launch event Martyn Day talked to the enterprising leader about his vision for design, hosted solutions and what lies beyond the cloud.

Autodesk used to be a one product company. It would only run on Windows and it was mainly used for 2D documentation of design. The last three years have seen an explosion in development of new products, support for multiple operating systems, acquisitions and a 3D solution for just about everything.

Autodesk professional CAD tools also had a reputation of being expensive, but with a slew of iPhone/iPad and Android applications that range from free to those that cost the equivalent of a couple of bags of chips, that too is a reputation that probably needs to be readdressed.

Under CEO Carl Bass, the company is looking to get its technology to as many far flung areas as possible. Autodesk software covers Entertainment and Media, Manufacturing, Plant Design, Architecture Engineering and Construction (AEC), General design documentation, Games, Document Management, Cloud hosting and all types of Analysis.

Visionary: Autodesk CEO Carl Bass believes that the cloud will become ubiquitous and therefore nothing special

Mobile and the cloud

While previous launch events have concentrated on products and features, Autodesk took a different tack this year, focussing on its breadth of development, especially on emerging trends with mobile and the cloud.

Mr Bass explained that while it took Autodesk some 20 years to get its first 11 million customers, over the last three years, with mobile applications, the company has managed to add more than 11 million.

AutoCAD WS, the online and mobile DWG viewer and editor has been an amazing success with millions of DWGs being loaded onto phones and tablets and taken to customers or construction sites.

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SketchBook mobile has been incredibly popular among digital artists and a new image effects tool Pixlr-o-matic is popular for photo editing.

The new range of analysis tools like ForceEffect bring real-time analysis of simple beam systems to mobile devices and the new BlueStreak Mobile from Labs brings collaboration technology with team communications and notifications to mobile users.

More than any other CAD vendor, the ‘cloud’ has quickly found its way into all of Autodesk’s professional offerings.

Somewhat confusingly, Autodesk Cloud, which originally launched late last year, has already been renamed ‘Autodesk 360’. Mr Bass explained the reason for this was the lack of longevity he attributes to the word ‘cloud’. In two years time, it will be ubiquitous and therefore nothing special.

Autodesk has already provided this free hosting service, together with additional functionality for Subscription customers. When combined with Vault, Buzzsaw and AutoCAD WS, Autodesk 360 extends the design office anywhere a tablet or mobile phone can go.

Document distribution was stage one. In the 2012 releases cloud services were included for free to Subscription customers, such as cloud-rendering, design optimisation, energy and structural analysis. Autodesk is committed to offering more and the 2013 products have been further architected to make use of Autodesk 360, together with even tighter integration for workflows between suites of products that are now bundled together.

While the software continues to get more capable, it is obvious that an increasing portion of the benefits of new versions will be capabilities that need to be run on Autodesk’s cloud-infrastructure.

The benefit here is that complex computations can be offloaded to huge web servers, freeing up the local machine, together with getting very fast results. Mr Bass talked about these new tools providing analysis and feedback on designs, together with results spanning multiple variations based on one design being submitted.

While this is undoubtedly the most practical and immediate benefit from having a cloud-based strategy, Autodesk is continuing to experiment with streaming apps from the cloud. Mr Bass has said on a number of occasions that Autodesk has Revit, Maya and Inventor comfortably running on an iPad over a wireless network. Now, if only there was a 20 inch iPad! It is safe to say that in the future Autodesk software will be available to run on a mix of platforms, locally or remote, depending on what is best for the task or, what is available.

Death of releases?

It seems that Autodesk’s yearly product dump may also be up for review. Mr Bass sees decreasing reasons for a major ‘R’ release when updates can be easily streamed throughout the year.

So there may not be a 2014 release, which raises all sorts of questions about the traditional ‘obit’ and staying on the upgrade cycle — the moving target that is a yearly release becomes a wave of in-year updates.

The company’s decision to concentrate more on its breadth of applications and increased reach with mobile products also puts an end to the traditional list of new features and enhancements. The push is now on omnipresence of data, workflow and the computational and optimisation benefits of cloud. I hope Autodesk’s new found popularity on mobile devices is not going to make it take its eyes off the core professional business; mobile revenue pales into insignificance to that of any one of Autodesk’s design products alone.

Capturing reality

Former head of Autodesk’s Labs division, Brian Mathews, is now working to commercialise the Labs team’s efforts to capture and convert images to 3D models. The development is exemplified in the innovative and free Autodesk 123D Catch cloud-based software, which takes multiple photographs of an object and (somewhat miraculously) sends back textured 3D models.

Mr Mathews has been refining the accuracy of this technology and claimed that the next release will be on a par with laser scans, which is a considerable claim.

He is also working on converting video to models and showed some stunning technology that involved flying an ‘Octocopter’ with a DSLR camera over a site to generate footage that was fed into cloud software to create impressive 3D images. Mr Mathews claimed this technology is a quick way to capture accurate city models. I am expecting more from this technology later on in the year.

Design Suites

Introduced last year, the hefty dollop of applications that are the Design Suites continue to grow. All now come with Autodesk 360 cloud capabilities.

The big news is that in the Premium and Ultimate Building Design Suite, all versions of Revit have been combined into one. That includes Architecture, Structural and MEP. It is no longer necessary to shut down and restart different Revit applications to gain access to the full suite. Autodesk Navisworks Simulate 2013 is now included in the Premium edition and Infrastructure Modeller 2013 is added to Ultimate.

AutoCAD Raster Design 2013 has been added to all versions of the Infrastructure Design Suite, with Infrastructure Modeller 2013 in Premium and Ultimate and AutoCAD Utility Design and Revit Structure 2013 added to the Ultimate version.

Revit Architecture, Structure and MEP are all still available as standalone applications.

Conclusion

Autodesk now has a massive portfolio of applications. Not only is that hard to keep up with, it has a growing number of Suites that mix and match related products in suggested workflows. Autodesk has gone from a one product company to one that needs a spreadsheet to figure out which products go where.

I asked Carl Bass if Autodesk had too many applications and didn’t quite get the answer I expected. Bass explained that while Google got it right with Google Docs, providing cloud tools to create popular documents, it relied on multiple applications to access all the different document types.

In comparison, Mr Bass sees a future where design documents are stored in the cloud and applications that were previously installed on personal hard drives become irrelevant. Instead the right tools will appear given the type of data or the manipulation required: AutoCAD-like functionality for drawing; 3ds Max, Inventor or Revit-like functions for modelling, depending on what you are trying to do.

This is indeed a broad utopian vision, but as it is coming from Carl Bass, you can be sure that somewhere in a lab, it is being experimented with.

Next issue we will look more in-depth at what capabilities are coming in the 2013 AEC products. By then we would have had time to get our hands on the software and look at the new releases.

autodesk.com

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