Learnin’ Large: Autodesk University, Upbeat in Spite of It All
December 31, 2009

Learnin’ Large: Autodesk University, Upbeat in Spite of It All

By Kathleen Maher

The purpose of Autodesk University is to give Autodesk’s customers an opportunity to improve their skills and to network. Autodesk also uses the event as an opportunity to show off new technologies and trends, and to get very direct feedback from its customers.

The company has seen its revenues from AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT decrease, and to hear Autodesk executives talk about it, at least some of them anyway, that’s not such a bad thing. AutoCAD may still be the most popular CAD product on many fronts, but Autodesk sees considerably more opportunities in promoting an environment that fosters collaboration, information sharing, and analysis.

Autodesk has consistently identified several areas of concentration for the company, including collaboration, sustainability, cloud computing, ease of use, analysis, and visualization. None of these ideas exist separately from the other. Rather, Autodesk believes that people are changing the way they work and communicate, thanks to new capabilities coming from more powerful computers and the possibilities offered by a powerful Web. Nor is this list of broad capabilities the sum total of Autodesk’s vision.

Inventor celebrated its 10th birthday at Autodesk University

2009’s Message

This year did not bring any shocking revelations--alright, maybe one, and we’ll save that for later. Primarily, the company showed the progress it has made on various projects.

CEO Carl Bass told an audience of press and analysts that the issues of file exchange have been resolved, pointing out that file exchange used to be the subject of numerous courses and discussions, and now it is hardly mentioned. On one front, collaboration has become much easier, but there is always more that can be done to improve communication. Navisworks has become key to Autodesk’s collaboration strategy, and the company has expanded its role from plant and architecture into all areas of design. Autodesk describes Navisworks as a simulation and analysis tool. To hear Autodesk talk about it, all 3D visualization tools can be seen as analysis and simulation. The point is, Autodesk believes that better designs can be created through an iterative process that involves design, visualization, analysis, revision, wash, rinse, and repeat.

Autodesk sees cloud computing as an additional resource for its customers, giving them additional compute power for analysis or rendering as needed. In this, the company has teamed with Mental Images (an Nvidia company), which has introduced RealityServer and new rendering tools that give users the ability to quickly render models using online resources. The ability to render in the cloud is inherently collaborative. More down to earth, the company also sees this same type of capability becoming available to families to explore redecorating ideas for the home.

Although, it’s not clear that the company actually states this as a philosophy, Autodesk seems to actively assess potential threats to make them opportunity. There has always been a threat to Autodesk’s AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT from low-cost imitators. This year at Autodesk University, the company stared down the hungry maw of low-cost competition and demonstrated Project Twitch, a collaboration with Steve Perlman’s OnLive service, which hosts full 3D games in the cloud (see “Lab Report,” pg. XX). Project Twitch gives users the ability to play with Inventor, Revit, and AutoCAD online. The company sees a future in which people might rent software as they need it, when they need it. In the meantime, Project Twitch is a great demo tool to illustrate the capabilities of Autodesk’s products.

For all the emphasis on Navisworks and architectural visualization tools, however, Autodesk seemed to be more enthusiastic about its manufacturing product line than architecture. When asked, the company stoutly denied any favoritism, making us believe it is hard at work adding new improvements to its architectural tools that will enhance their role in for an architectural “digital prototyping.” We do know that the entertainment group is working ever closer with the design group and that the Alias tools are also being revamped to make them more broadly useful.

The Apple of Autodesk’s Eye

As we stated at the outset, the underlying message for Autodesk’s broad range of initiatives and interests is to push forward into new ways of working and exploring ideas. The company did not dwell on the obvious fact that the CAD industry has been hard hit by recessionary forces, but it did acknowledge that many of its customers may be coming to the show this year to hunt for jobs as well as to improve their skills. CTO Jeff Kowalski told the audience that their best bet for success is to adopt new practices that incorporate iterative design, analysis, simulation, and 3D visualization, rather than concentrate on honing traditional skills.

So, what might be the big surprise? Autodesk is increasing its support for the Apple platform. The iPhone seemed to play a part in just about every presentation on the big stages. The company showed the iPhone as a design tool with Sketch, it showed iPhone for review, iPhone as a model for client access to the cloud, and iPhone as an example of superior product design.

Just weeks before, Autodesk announced that Smoke, part of its advanced digital content creation suite of products for the high end, will be available for the Mac OS (see spotlight section). Autodesk has steadily added new products for the Mac, including Maya, Alias Design, Alias Surface, Cleaner, Combustion, Sketchbook Pro, Stitcher, and Mudbox. Most of these tools are for digital content creation, and yet there is a real preference among many industrial designers for the Mac platform, and even more people use the Mac in a dual-boot configuration with Boot Camp or use parallels for simultaneous Windows/Mac windows.

The trajectory seems very clear towards more Mac products, maybe even someday a return of AutoCAD to the Mac. This is something architects, still a major source of Autodesk’s revenues, have longed for. Absolutely no promises were made, but the trend seems inevitable as Autodesk seeks to bring its products for entertainment content creation and design together.

Autodesk University: Carl Bass shows 'em a little of that soft shoe

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com.