u p F r o n t . e Z i n e
the business of cad
Issue #707 | October 10, 2011
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In This Issue
1. upFront.eZine at Bricsys Conference 2011
- An AutoCAD Clone No Longer
- They Bought the LEDAS Store
- Architecturals as API
- It Used to Be Called Vista
- Entering Education with a EuroContest
- Branching Out
2. Smartphone Strategies for CAD Vendors
- Pros and Cons of the Leading OSes
- What about HTML5?
- Summary on OSes
- Low Hardware Prices
- Low Software Pricing
- Other Considerations
- Choices for the Future
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upFront.eZine at Bricsys Conference 2011
I blogged extensively from last week's Bricsys Conference in Brussels; see http://worldcadaccess.typepad.com/blog/2011/10/wrapping-up-bricsys-conference-2011.html. Here is a synopsis of the most important announcements.
An AutoCAD Clone No Longer
The perpetual difficulty faced by the 14-year-old AutoCAD clone industry (I count SoftSource VDraft as the first) is staying on the catch-up-with-AutoCAD treadmill -- with no chance of catching up, ever. With Bricscad V8 and V9, Bricsys cut itself loose from the IntelliCAD code base, and with V12 manages to get ahead of AutoCAD in three areas.
Sure, in some ways it will still play catch-up; after all, in V12 users get finally age-old features like customizable hatch patterns, yet still can't customize mouse buttons. But take a look at this line-up:
All for half the price of AutoCAD LT. CAD users in developing countries: prepare to free yourselves from Autodesk's "democratized" higher-than-USA pricing. Plus, a new, faster PDF engine and a new, faster raster display engine and new, faster DWG access and display engine. All with no price increase.
They Bought the LEDAS Store
This democratization of constraints was possible because they bought the core technology. Why? "We felt we had to, before someone else did. We wanted to make sure that the software would continue to be available, and not be locked up by someone else."
That, and because LEDAS wanted to dispose of its retail and API software to better concentrate on its services side. The company earlier this year determined it wasn't particularly great at marketing software products. Now, it'll concentrate on servicing long-term programming contracts for CAD and CAM vendors internationally.
The one time I interviewed someone from d-cubed of England (owned by Siemens PLM Systems of Germany), they considered ten-year-old LEDAS of Russia as "a relatively recent entrant." D-cubed, say "Hello" to Bricsys Technologies Russia, the new subsidiary of Belgium-based Bricsys that'll be competing for your customers.
Just as competitors to Solid Edge license components from d-cubed, so too competitors to Bricscad will now license the LGS 2D and LGS 3D libraries from Bricsys.
Architecturals as API
As I was blogging, Konstantinos Sakellaris asked me to find out what was happening with the Architecturals, an advanced AEC add-on that Bricsys stop selling nearly a decade ago. (How advanced? Bentley Systems bought a version as the basis of their architectural software.) The company is in a bind: it would like to update it, but hasn't had the time (rewriting Bricscad kept all programmers busy enough); it would like to sell it, but that would go against its new philosophy of being a platform for third-party developers -- and so place it in competition against its partners.
There is, however, a long-term plan: give Architecturals a modern interface; give away a SketchUp-like version; add an IFC interface; and provide an API for third-party developers to enhance their own products. (It will not, however, be open-sourced.) This is sad news for fans of Architecturals, but good news otherwise, because, frankly, at least one of the third-party AEC demos we saw last week was of the "See, I can draw a wall, insert a door, and the move the door" variety that was exciting, um, 20 years ago.
It Used to Be Called Vista
...and then it was called Vondle, and by year's end it'll be named Chapoo Biz. "Chapoo," because the name wasn't already taken. The Biz version involves a subscription; a personal version will be free to V12 users for uploading, viewing, sharing, and managing 50 file formats on 2GB free storage space. The cloud, in other words.
It works in Web browsers, and so is OS-independent for desktops. For Android, there already is an alpha version of Chapoo, and there are plans for a port to iOS.
Entering Education Through a EuroContest
In Q4, the company plans to aggressively enter the education market with free 12-month licenses to Platinum for all students and colleges, by promoting "u-apps" through a e15,000 contest (US$21,000) to encourage students to create and sell Bricscad add-ons for under e20 ($28) -- because "it is hard to find good developers in Western Europe."
Bricsys ceo Erik de Keyser says, "By adding high-end technology, like design intent and 3D constraint solvers, we are strongly signaling our ambition to enter the 3D space in the MCAD and AEC markets." Not a lot of detail there, and especially vague since he is relying on third-parties to do the entering. But the point is that he's already got one API for MCAD (the ex-LEDAS stuff), with a second one in his pocket for AEC (adapted from Architecturals).
Where's he's not branching out to is SketchUp or Rhino; he's got the Driving Dimensions add-ons for both of them, and is content enough that people keep purchasing them as they wish.
Another step ahead of AutoCAD is the Linux version. V12 Linux will have just about everything found in the Windows version, even to the point of emulating many of Microsoft's APIs. Mac version? Keeps being mentioned, and keeps being delayed.
'Course, the proof's in the pudding, and the new core technology will have to stand up to the rigors end-users applying it in unexpected ways to their real-world design problems. As cto Luc De Batselier put it with a broad grin, "This is just version one point zero."
A 30-day demo of Bricscad V12 Platinum is available from http://www.bricsys.com as of tomorrow; Linux version in a month from now. Next year's release of Bricscad might not be called V13; in fact, rumor is that there might be broader names changes considered.
In summary, Bricscad V12 goes ahead of AutoCAD in these three areas:
a. 3D constraints and design intent (provided by Autodesk through Fusion, but badly integrated).
b. Feature-complete Linux version (AutoCAD has a Mac version, but it is not feature-complete).
c. Most expensive CAD package is half the price of AutoCAD LT, a boon for developing countries, where starting architects make $300 a month.
No, four: Bricsys now owns one of the world's two licensable constraint libraries.
On Twitter, Alex Bausk (@bauskas) asks, "A single CAD manager's AutoCAD + BricsCAD workstations per workgroup looks like a perfectly viable industrial solution now?" It's getting there, especially after the additional updates V12 gets a few months from now. Missing stuff could be added thru LISP.
[Disclosure: Bricsys provided me with airfare, hotel accommodation, some meals, and two bottles of Trappist Westvleteren 8 beer. Photos from the conference here.]
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Smartphone Strategies for CAD Vendors
At the Bricsys Conference, I spoke on the strategies CAD vendors should consider for smartphones and tablets, for as of 2011 there are now two primary platforms:
Here is the text on which I based my talk:
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I want to start off with a bit of history, because we can learn lessons from history. It was in 1999 when CAD vendors had to face this new thing called "the Internet" and tried to figure out. What were some of the responses back then?
- Some wrote browser plug-ins for viewing drawings -- remember ActiveX?
- Others created Internet-friendly file formats that compressed drawing data so that customers on dial-up modems could send and receive files -- and so we got DWF
- A few opened up Web sites for project collaboration and drawing sharing, like Buzzsaw
- Some added Internet commands to CAD programs -- like hyperlink and ftp
In 2001, the Internet bubble crashed, but all these items are still with us today.
And now in 2011, CAD vendors are again facing a new thing, and this time its two new things. Two things that are so new that I probably would not have been talking about them a year ago: the smartphone/tablet and the cloud. Today I'll talk about smartphones and tablets, for I don't have time for much cloud.
In just 12 months, these two have become so important that CAD developers are back at the job of trying to figure out how to incorporate them into their CAD systems.
Today I want to talk about some of the things developers could consider when approaching smartphones, tablets, and the cloud.
The first issue is platform.
In the August 9th issue of upFront.eZine, I made a prediction of how smartphone platforms would go. By the end of the year, I said that RIM, MeeGo, Windows Mobile, Symbian, WebOS, and others like Bado would not matter. I wrote, "HP will pull its WebOS tablets from the market." HP did so within a week of me making the prediction.
(It's interesting to note how many operating systems are based on Linux or Unix: PalmOS, MeeGo, Android, and iOS.) So that leaves two: Android and iOS. Let's look at...
Pros and Cons of the Leading OSes
The #1 problem developers have with Android is the fragmentation of hardware and OS platforms. There are tablets and smartphones with different hardware specs, but even worse, many smartphones also have significantly different hardware capabilities.
When Autodesk released their first app for Android, they said that the biggest headache was testing it and tweaking it for many different brands of Android smartphones.
When you go into the Android Market, you find that many updates for apps involve bug fixes specific to smartphone models.
The good news is that Google is working on solving this problem. Because, it's a major selling point for Apple. The first step will be with Android v4 known as Ice Cream Sandwich. It is supposed to ship next month, and so we will see how well Android takes care of handling different screen sizes and other specs on behalf of the application.
The other good news is that Google is iterating Android quickly, with several releases a year, as it works to overtake the capabilities of iOS.
The problem developers have with iOS is Apple's control over the hardware and software ecosystem. Unlike Android, a software developer can't just send out beta copies to iPhone and iPad users; it has to be installed from Apple's iTunes store. (Android users can sideload apps in a number of ways.)
One workaround by some CAD developers is to label their new apps on iTunes as a "pre-release" software, and not publicize it -- except to the equivalent of beta testers. After a few weeks, the big press release goes out and the media rounds begin.
Another problem with iOS is that Apple is slower than Google at releasing updates to its operating system; once a year is the norm. This worked when Apple had the smartphone market to itself. But this is no longer the case; perhaps under the new CEO the update rate will quicken. To delay the oncoming Android tsunami, Apple has launched many law suits, always a bad sign when a company relies on litigation rather than innovation.
What about HTML5?
So far I have concentrated on Android and iOS, but there is one more "operating system" that has programmers interested. HTML5 has interesting possibilities. Its primary promise is that it can run apps in a Web browser on all platforms.
Once again, we can use history to help us see where this might lead: a decade ago, Java promised the same thing, but it failed to because of the lack of performance. It wasn't fast enough, and it wasn't compatible enough quickly enough. (I remember being at a computer trade show with my wife, where Sun was showing how Java could run games of Tic-Tac-Toe. My wife asked, "Why would anyone want to do that?") Nevertheless, it became an important leg for Web pages and even Android -- just not the king of the mountain.
Both Apple and Google are promoting HTML5, for different reasons:
- Apple promotes it as a way to get around its restrictions it imposes on apps sold from its iTunes store.
- Google promotes it for its Chromium OS for the desktop and on dedicated netbooks; but not, curiously, in Android.
Other firms are also experimenting on HTML5:
- a new firm in Canada called Carbyn has an HTML5 operation system. It was announced while I was traveling, and so I haven't tested it yet.
- JoliCloud tried to be the first out of the gate. At first, it was a skin on Linux for netbooks, and then it was reinvented to run inside Chrome browser. So I was able to operate JoliCloud on a computer, running Chrome Web browser, in which ran JoliCloud as an HMTL5 operating system. Talk about self-referential!
Unfortunately, I cannot see HTML5 has any more than another dead end, at least as an operating system.
Summary on OSes
It seems to me that the future is a fork in the road, two environments that are optimized for various platforms:
- fat and feature-rich on desktop -- for creating content, like for CAD, games development, programming, and desktop publishing
- lean and specific on portable devices -- for consuming content and communicating effortlessly
The other issue is pricing, and this is the scary part for developers.
The good news is that hardware pricing is plummeting, and so many more people will take up smartphones and tablets.
The bad news is that software prices are rock bottom today, although I see some upward pressure. Software today is insignificant enough that developers price their products at about the same as air -- free, or at 99 cents, which for consumers is pretty much the same as free.
Apple dismayed the computer industry when it set new standards for pricing:
- a new generation of tablets that start at $500
- the new generation of software that is typically priced at 99 cents, from which programmers lose 30 cents to Apple.
Low Hardware Prices
I must say that Apple is good at creating the illusion of low prices. Compared to the $1000 MacBook, $500 sounds cheap for an iPad. But it compared with today's $200 netbooks, iPads are expensive. The $500 price is mentioned so often that people forget iPad models top out at around $900, are priced much higher in Europe, and become even more expensive once accessories are added in. Stuff like keyboards and port adapters -- that netbooks throw in for free.
There is such an emphasis on the $500 price-point that the tech press gets excited when someone releases a new tablet for $350. How low can hardware prices go? HP sold out its TouchPads nearly instantly when it lowered the price to $100. (I know, I ordered one online, only to have the confirmed order cancelled on me.)
But $100 is low until you check prices on eBay. Via makes a WM8650 chip set and reference design meant for very low cost tablets, ones whose list price was meant to be under $100. I bought this one from Hong Kong for $85, shipping included, through eBay. This 7" tablet has pretty much the same specs as my Samsung smartphone. The primary drawbacks are that the CPU runs at 800MHz, and that the screen is resistive, meaning it is not very responsive.
The primary benefits to this tablet is that it is 100% rooted and so there there are hackers rewriting Android to optimize it for this line cheap tablets, making them run faster. Up to version 9 now. I plug in a keyboard and mouse to overcome the bad touchscreen.
It's been suggested that Android OS will drive down the price of smartphones to under $100, and here we already see this happening. Smartphones may become computer of choice in developing countries, where the wired infrastructure does not work consistently -- and so the switch to wireless communications, and locally produced electrical power, such as from solar panels motorcycle batteries.
For developers, the good news is that rock bottom prices for hardware means more many potential customers.
Low Software Pricing
The bad news for developers is that the standard price for smartphone software is now 99 cents and free. Such low prices are unsustainable, and so I've noticing prices easing up. For example, a soft alarm clock app is $3.50.
More dramatically, Autodesk posted LT Mac on iTunes store at $899, without even a demo version for tire kickers -- due to iTunes regulations. Imagine: Autodesk bowing to Apple. Another CAD vendor currently has his product free, but he's told me that he plans to release versions with more features and then drive up the price, first to $10 and then $20.
So we are looking at really cheap hardware, and maybe software prices that might raise to reasonable levels. What price does software need to be? That's a question only you can answer as a developer, but here is my advice:
CAD is a small industry, and your product is a niche product. This means the number of customers is small, relatively which means you need to charge higher prices. It pains me when a software vendor charges less in the hopes of gaining more customers; watching CAD vendors for 20 years who have tried this shows that it does not work.
If a customer needs your product, he will buy it whether it is cheap or if it is moderately priced, so you might as well charge more for it.
Challenges faced by smartphones and tablets in CAD include the following:
Ways of getting files in and out of them
- dropbox, email, ftp,
- Android allows direct loading through USB, WiFi, Bluetooth
- iOS allows syncing through iTunes
- Graphisoft has a link through Facebook that I have not tried it yet
- Autodesk has its WS server, with commands in AutoCAD
- problem: fingers cover up what is immediately under the fingers
- can use styluses meant for capacitive screens
- Gstarcad uses a bird's-eye view to the side that shows the area under the finger
RAM is limited
- CAD vendors have to play tricks to display large drawings
- Gstarcad uses a proprietary format to compress vectors, and store fonts internally
- Graphisoft uses prop format, BMX, that minimizes polygons, removes hidden ones, but also stores data like layers,
- IMSI/design is so far the only one to handle DWG directly
- Autodesk rasterizes the current view; only last week came out with DesignReview with DWF but not DWG.
CPU speed are accelerating
Desktop CPUs have stalled in speed, defying Moore's Law, but not in smartphones, where speeds and cores are increasing every six months right now, with 2.5GHz CPU and quad cores promised for next year.
Not sure what four cores will do, but in two-core smartphones, Google has said that the OS would run on one, while apps run on the second.
GPUs that are useful to CAD. I understand this topic less well, since there seem to be a variety of GPUs brands out there.
Indeed, I argue that the biggest benefit the smartphone and tablet markets have in their favor is that Intel and Microsoft are not involved. In my opinion, they were great drags that limited advances in desktop computing. You know some of the horror stories, I can tell you some, too: Atom CPU, EMS memory, math chip, et al.
Connectivity is limited
Smartphones and tablets are meant to be disconnected from the desktop, and so they are disconnected from the power outlet and not necessarily around WiFi -- especially free WiFi. LTE is promising even higher data speeds over cell phone systems, but causes more battery drain.
As they become more powerful and faster at wireless communications, the battery drain jumps. On my Android, I have a extended battery that lasts 2.2x longer; I no longer have to recharge each afternoon! No fatter than my old Palm Tungsten.
Choices for the Future
The choice for the future is openness or lock-in. Customers tend to be locked to their CAD package, and so will have to go along with whatever smartphone solution the CAD vendor provides -- if any. No SolidWorks users is going to switch to Inventor just because Autodesk has IPM Viewer for Android.
On the other hand, vendors get to choose their smartphone platform, and here is where openness comes in. Apple has its own agenda for locking in users, with which we are all familiar. And so Android wins.
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Entire contents copyright 2011 by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. All rights reserved worldwide. Letters sent to the editor are subject to publication. Article reprint fee: $250 and up. All trademarks belong to their respective holders. "upFront.eZine," "The Business of CAD," and "WorldCAD Access" are trademarks of upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. Letters to the editor may be edited for clarity and brevity. Translations and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd.