the business of cad


Issue #760 |  January 15, 2013
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In This Issue


1. Exclusive interview: Joshua Smith of Kaon Interactive

   - Talking About Running CAD on Small Screens


2. Running CAD on Small Screens, Part 4

   - Hard to Predict is the Future

3. Out of the Inbox, and our other regular columns.


From the editor: I finally got caught up with Letters to the Editor, which is why you'll read a generous amount of them in this issue.



Exclusive interview: Joshua Smith of Kaon Interactive

Joshua Smith is chief technology officer of Kaon Interactive, and we got into a conversation by email about the technology of running CAD on smartphones and tablets. In the first part, Mr Smith responds to statements I made (identified by 'upFront.eZine'), following by our email exchange (identified by 'Grabowski').



upFront.eZine: Developers tend to write for Apple's iPhone smartphone and iPad tablet first, even though Google's Android overall has twice the market share. The reason is that Android suffers from fragmentation.


Joshua Smith: That's not the only reason, and I suspect it is not the primary reason in the CAD space. For the most part, you are talking about tablet apps here, not phone apps. Android has no market share to speak of in the tablet space <http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-of-the-day-ipad-market-share-2012-9>. Also, most vendors find that actually getting people to pay for iOS apps is much easier than getting people to pay for Android apps.

upFront.eZine: The primary problem, however, is a CAD vendor's biggest hurdle: the RISC-based ARM CPU [reduced instruction set computing] used in nearly all smartphones and tablets is fully incompatible with the CISC-based Intel/AMD CPUs [compelx instruction set computing] used in desktop and notebook computers. This means CAD vendors have to write many parts of the software from scratch.


Mr Smith: They certainly need to port, but the switch from x86 to ARM is not the issue. The issue is that [Apple] iOS code needs to be written in Objective C, and Android code needs to be written in Java. I suspect CAD vendors are mostly all using C++.


Similarly, OpenGL [open graphics language] and GLES [OpenGL for Embedded Systems] are not the same thing. Even for an OpenGL-based CAD program, there is going to be considerable pain making the port to GLES. Two issues in particular:

Ralph Grabowski: Hopefully the Mali 600 GPUs coming out next year will fix this problem.


Mr Smtih: I don't see why it would. GLES [a.k.a. OpenGL ES] is an API [applications programming interface] spec, so it doesn't really matter what the GPU can do if the OS [operating system] only supports the GLES API. And that's the case on both Android and iOS. Press reports say the 600 will support OpenCL [Open Computing Language], but that doesn't really have anything to do with the rendering pipeline.


upFront.eZine: Even panning is inconsistent: some CAD programs use a single-finger drag, others require two fingers. Worse, users are stuck with memorizing a variety of multi-finger moves among multiple applications.


Mr Smith: There does seem to be a trend toward standardizing on 1-finger rotate, 2-finger pan, pinch zoom. But you're right that this is not yet universal.


upFront.eZine: Smartphones and tablets released next year are expected to have graphics on par with desktop computers, such as OpenGL and DirectX.


Mr Smith: This is not even close to true. The APIs might be available, but that doesn't mean performance will be anywhere close. There are orders of magnitude differences in performance today, and closing that gap will take much longer than a year.


Mr Grabowski: This is debatable, due to the efficiencies CAD vendors put into their mobile apps, efficiencies they do not need to implement in Windows.


Mr Smith: You meant that the graphics shown on the screen would be on par, not that the underlying graphics hardware would be on par. I agree completely with that.

In fact, the closed, predictable nature of the iOS platform actually makes it easier to give terrific results on mobile than it is to get consistent results on the desktop. Mobile is a lot more like a game console, where the uniformity of the platform results in a big bang-for-the-buck when you optimize specifically for that hardware.


Mr Grabowski: You are the expert on this aspect, and so I defer to you on this one! But my understanding is that the 3D graphics display on iPads and Androids is limited to what the GPU can display, such as the types of shaded renderings. This is what some CAD vendors told me, and they are unhappy with the limited number available -- four, I think.


This is why I think that if the GPU improves its capabilities, then more kinds of renderings are available. What are the limitations, as you see them? Do the limitations go beyond the kinds of hardware-generated renderings available?


Mr Smith: The big difference between [fixed-pipeline] OpenGL and [programmable pipeline] GLES is the switch from a "fixed pipeline" to a "programmable pipeline":

And if you don't write shader code, it won't do ANYTHING!


So what those guys told you is not really accurate. You can do whatever shader modes you want, as long as you are willing to spend the time writing shader code. GLES and WebGL use the same shader model, so if you go look at demos of the crazy stuff you can do in the Chrome browser (google: webgl shader demos), any of those things are *already* supported on mobile.


But there's a catch: Mobile chipsets have few cores, low clock rates, and slow memory. So although you can get any shader model you want to run there, you cannot get much of any shader model to run there with good performance.


For example, when we ported our engine to iOS, we found that dynamic light calculations were simply too slow. So we precompute light maps, and apply them sort of like textures, using the shader we wrote. That's something that people working with OpenGL on desktops never would have expected to need to do. And, in fact, they probably have to go hire some people who know how to do this stuff, and those people are in very short supply!


The limitations of GPUs [graphics processing units] on mobile all boil down to one thing: power. Top-of-the-line desktop graphics cards take 150 watts. In mobile, it's more like 5 watts. The lack of power means slower everything, and a lot fewer cores.


PowerVR is a very, very clever set of technologies, but cleverness only gets you so far, when you have a 30:1 power disadvantage.



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Running CAD on Small Screens

Part 4: Hard to Predict is the Future
This is the final part of the series based on a talk I gave in October at Bricsys International Developer Conference 2012, Amsterdam.

The future of computing has always been defined by "faster" and "cheaper." We are good only at predicting the future linearly, extrapolating from today's situation. In reality, however, the near future twists and turns unexpectedly; after all, the iPad did not exist three years ago. And so we cannot determine the route our portable devices will take to reach faster and cheaper.


Future Hardware

Even though desktop CPUs have stalled in speed for more than a decade now, portable CPUs are charging ahead in speed. From the future specs being touted this year, we can expect next year's portable devices that make full CAD nearly a reality through 2GHz eight-core ARM chips.


Over in China, prices are driven down through the development of their own AllWinner-brand ARM-based CPU/GPU that sells for $7 in bulk. One of my tablets uses it; it is an Android with 1.3HGz CPU, 1024x768 8" screen, 8GB RAM, and lots of ports. Price: $158, shipping from China included. (On a personal note, I like the 8" format; I find 7" screens too cramped and 10" devices too bulky.) Oh, and the price has fallen to $129 since I bought it last year, and the CPU is now dual-core..


My current tablet is an ASUS TF-101, which is now considered low-end with its 1GHz dual-core CPU, 1280x800 10" screen, 16GB RAM, and lots of ports. Price: $399 (or less), complete with keyboard dock that extends battery life to 16 hours and adds full-size USB and SD card slots.

The wild card is Windows 8RT, the version of Windows 8 running on ARM tablets and smartphones. Software developers like it, as I mentioned earlier, because of the ease of porting from desktop programs; hardware makers resent it, because Microsoft intends to compete with its own Surface line of tablets. I suspect, however, 8RT will be the next in Microsoft's history of failed tablet OSes.


Future Software

Today's portable CAD software mostly views drawings; some allow mark ups; only a few, such as GStarCAD MC and AutoCAD WS, allow some editing of drawings. We can expect more in the future, right?


The problem is (more problems!) that technology changes fast. How fast? Here is an example of how fast: this is what Autodesk has had to go through in trying to create an "everywhere" version of AutoCAD:


Generation 1: Twitch on servers. The company began in 2009 with a brute-force solution called Project Twitch that ran AutoCAD on servers, delivering it to us over the Internet. The drawback to this approach is latency, the delay in response time caused by the distance from the server. Today, Autodesk uses the technology only to provide a demo version of AutoCAD LT.


Generation 2: ProjectPlan for desktop. Autodesk bought ProjectPlan (aka Visual Tao), because they Israeli company had figured out how to display and edit GIS (mapping) data using a Flash plug-in embedded in Web browsers. Autodesk released its version for editing CAD drawings in 2010 as Project Butterfly, and then later commercially as AutoCAD WS (short for "Web services").


One drawback to this approach is that Flash is 2D-only, which is why the Web browser version of WS cannot display drawings in 3D viewpoints. The other drawback is that Adobe is deprecating Flash in favor of HTML5.


Generation 3: WS for Android and iOS. Near the end of 2010, Autodesk finished rewriting AutoCAD WS for the iPhone. A half-year later, the company completed rewriting it for Android. These smartphone versions use a different technology from Flash, and so benefit from being able to display 3D models interactively.


Generation 4: HTML5? It's been quite a rollercoaster ride for "everywhere" AutoCAD, which went through three generations in just two years -- at a huge price tag for Autodesk, who has received around $0 in revenue for all the work. AutoCAD WS has not been regenerated a fourth time yet, but if it were, I would expect it to be rewritten in HTML5, the current darling of programmers writing apps for the Web and portable devices.


While Autodesk does not yet have HTML5-based CAD, tiny companies already do. They are using a combination of HTML5 and Javascript to display rendered 3D CAD models in the latest releases of Web browsers like Chrome and Firefox. A server reacts to user's interactions and pushes updates to the browser. Examples include the following:

What is exciting is that these browser-based CAD systems operate in Chrome and Firefox running on portable devices that support HTML5. (See http://worldcadaccess.typepad.com/blog/2012/06/running-browsercad-on-android.html .) I am unsure, however, of the viability of these startup companies.


The technology Autodesk that employed for each generation made perfect sense at the time; it's just that portable technology zags so fast that we cannot predict where it will zig next. After all, three years ago, iPad did not exist; today it is the largest selling "PC."



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Out of the Inbox

The New Year's acquisition binges carry on...

But not just acquisitions. There's a flood of new releases this month, too:


On our Blogs

Here are some of the items that appeared recently on our WorldCAD Access blog at http://worldcadaccess.typepad.com:

And on our Gizmos Grabowski blog at http://worldcadaccess.typepad.com/gizmos:


Letters to the Editor

"Happy New Year! I noticed in this issue the announcement of Vero's acquisition of Sescoi misspelt as 'Sescio.' This is pretty interesting news as Vero continues to consolidate the CAM market. Makes one wonder who's next. I did a double-take because I was familiar with Vero's acquisition binge and Sescoi is a fairly nichey CAM product. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!"
      - John's Biz

Re: Running CAD on Small Screen

"As always, we appreciate the mention in the latest issue of upFront.eZine. Please don't forget that we also have two free apps: free TurboViewer and free TurboSite Reader; both are blazingly-fast viewers. In the mall [construction] example you cited, these would have easily done the trick. In fact, they'd do the trick even if there was no connectivity, as all of our mobile apps can work remotely.


"Regarding pricing, we wholeheartedly agree that value prop is all important. For example, the price of TurboSite is insignificant compared to the cost of doing fieldwork and site visits the old way."
      - Royal Farros, ceo


The editor replies: "I know about your free apps, but (as I think you caught on) I am encouraging CAD vendors to get out of the 99-cent market."

"Forget CAD on small screens, check out this tablet:
      - Henrik Vallgren
      Streamspace.com, Sweden


The editor replies: "I wonder how much it weighs!"

"Along the same lines, I heard that Ford has started development of a pocket-sized minivan, which, while somewhat bulky at 8"x4"x2" (requiring deep-ish pockets), promises to allow people to carry nearly useful quantities of cargo at an incredibly low rate of speed for very short distances (relative to humans). In tests, Ford executives may have stated 'We are able to load nearly three full ounces of horse manure into the cargo area, and, though the driver has to balance on the top of the minivan with one hand while operating the steering wheel, the brakes, the accelerator, and the clutch with the other hand, (automatic transmissions are on the wishlist, which we ignore every few minutes), the truth is that our prototype gets nearly 200 full yards per tank of fuel.'


"Future developments could include an Edison-era wax cylinder musical recording player, an espresso machine, a ski lift, and a Tomahawk cruise missile vertical launch system -- simply because we paid someone nimrods huge sums of money to think it up, not because those things have any relevant utility."
      - Peter Lawton


The editor replies: "Worse are the touch screen interfaces Ford has in their new cars. I've had to experience them twice now in rented cars. The screens should be ruled illegal, they such a dangerous distraction when driving, even to do something as simple as change the fan speed."

"Just wondering if you could clarify how you came by the figures to state 'Apple iOS is primarily popular on tablets'. I'd always believed the iPhone outsold the iPad. Here's some Apple figures which seem to back that belief up: 37m iPhones vs 15.4m iPads <http://www.macrumors.com/2012/01/24/apple-reports-best-quarter-ever-in-q1-2012-13-06-billion-profit-on-46-33-billion-in-revenue/>. Do you not count the iPhone as a SmartPhone? Or has the picture of sales changed since these figures were published?"
      - Nigel Davies, director


The editor replies: "I may have written this too vaguely. I meant that of tablets, iOS is the most popular OS."


Re: Scanning and Modeling Large Petroleum Facilities in Hazardous Conditions
"I read your review of EdgeWise. I've been exposed to it as we are using it to help pull some data from a LaserScan as part of a Project I am leading. Very impressive software. I'm curious about your last comment: 'Q: Is ClearEdge only for pipes? A: EdgeWise Plant is for pipes; the MEP version is for cylindrical objects; building tools is being developed for AEC, with a beta version next year; also can do terrain modeling.'

"From talking to the people at ClearEdge, I was led to believe that no AEC tool was being developed. Can you share what this will include? Will it allow me to model structural elements like beams and the like? If so, then someone has to 'splainin' to do!!!!"
      - Dave Angelotti

The editor replies:
"Could depend with who you spoke. The AEC angle was told to me the last time I interviewed them some months ago, and then again in the Webcast. I was given no details, but I assume that it would act like the Pipes one, but search for I beams shapes instead."

Re: 3D Systems Swallows Up Geomagic

"The acquisition did not make it into her new book. I finished reading it about a week ago. See http://wohlersassociates.com/blog."
      - Terry Wohlers
       Wohlers Associates, Inc.

Re: Stratasys and Objet Complete Merger

"It is indeed a merger. The new company, Stratasys Ltd., is an Israeli company with an Israeli CEO (David Reis). Stratasys founder Scott Crump will serve as full-time executive chairman. The company will maintain dual headquarters in the U.S. and Israel. Former Stratasys stockholders hold about 55% of the merged company's stock, while former Objet shareholders hold about 45%."
      - Terry Wohlers
        Wohlers Associates, Inc.

Re: Autodesk University 2012

"Thx for your great AU coverage. It was great for us folks that couldn't make it this year."
       - Rick Stavanja

Re: Exclusive Interview: Geomagic Spark Encompasses That Other Cloud

"I don't dispute the number, but where'd you get 30K users for SpaceClaim?"
      - Randall Newton


The editor replies: "That is the number Kevin Scofield of Geomagic told me. You are the first to remark on it. (I was waiting for reaction.) "


"What is the point of you getting an exclusive when you publish 4 days after everyone else has it?"
      - G. R.


The editor replies: "My interview was not a regurgitation of the press release, which is what everyone else covered, including WorldCAD Access. This was the first interview given, together with an online demo, which beat all other publications by several days. Hence, exclusive"

"Have you experimented with the Sketchy Physics plugin for SketchUp? This thing is mad fun. It's probably not realistic enough for engineering simulations (the units don't appear to correspond to anything) but for a free plugin made by some guy in his basement it's pretty dramatic, and much more accessible than Inventor, etc."
      - Samuel E. Ketner, Technology Education
        Atlee High School


The editor replies: "I hadn't heard of it, so thanks for the tip. I wonder if it is like that old DOS physics-based game, The Incredible Machine."


Spin Doctor of the Moment

"Google has not yet shown they are truly serious. From the outside, they are an advertising company."
      - Julia White, general manager, business division, Microsoft



upFront.eZine is published every Tuesday, except during summer and Christmas vacation. Editor: Ralph Grabowski. This newsletter is read by 11,000 subscribers in 70 countries. Your comments are welcome at editor@upfrontezine.com! Deadline for submissions is every Monday noon.


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Entire contents copyright 2012 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.


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