Updated Forecast

20 Nov, 2012 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson

Editor's Window: Over the past three years, much has changed in the world of cloud-based software for CAD users — and much has stayed the same.


Here's a CAD trivia question for you: Which prominent industry figure once said, "I think [cloud-based computing] is a big deal. If we look out three to five years, I think most software will be delivered this way"?

I'll give you some hints: It was late 2009, the prediction was delivered at a major annual CAD event, and the company that hosted the event now has a pretty big stake in the cloud-based software market.

If you guessed Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, you're right! As I shared in "Editor's Window" in the spring 2010 issue of Cadalyst, Bass made that statement at Autodesk University 2009. At that time, the company already was moving forward in the cloud-computing arena with several Autodesk Labs technology previews.

Since then, Autodesk's cloud-based offerings have grown tremendously and now include commercially available products and services. In addition to AutoCAD WS, designed for file viewing and editing, a bevy of others are available to tackle tasks ranging from collaborative design review to rendering and model simulation, and even product lifecycle management. (See related coverage of Autodesk 360 in "Meet Me on the Cloud," and "Circles and Lines.")

Looking back at Bass's forecast and considering all that has transpired since, one has to wonder if Autodesk has only a couple more years before "most software will be delivered this way." So far, customers seem to be accepting cloud computing — or at least they aren't strongly objecting.

In contrast, a few months after Bass's pronouncement, SolidWorks' then-CEO Jeff Ray told attendees at SolidWorks World 2010 that his company planned to begin launching cloud-based software as early as that fall. The response from the SolidWorks user community was nothing short of an outcry. The company's cloudy aspirations came to a virtual halt.

What's the difference here? Why does one company make great strides in the cloud realm, with customers in tow, while another seems very nearly at a standstill, with customers up in arms?

One obvious difference is the approach. Autodesk typically releases cloud tools in beta format, for free, and users can experiment with them. Even when the solutions are commercially released, the company offers them as options — and again, usually free or as bonuses for customers on subscription. Customers use the cloud-based services voluntarily and can build confidence and trust gradually, with little perceived risk.

In the case of SolidWorks, the company didn't clearly state what was in the works or whether customers would have a choice in the matter. That left users to make assumptions, and soon online communities were buzzing about the possibility that SolidWorks could be moving to the cloud, period, leaving users without control over their method of software access and putting workflows, design data, and even business livelihoods at risk.

While Bass has always been open, even promotional, about Autodesk's cloud-based vision, SolidWorks never cleared up that early confusion and even today remains tight-lipped. Bertrand Sicot, current SolidWorks CEO, strikes me as genuinely concerned about his company's products and customers but has yet to state definitively what is or isn't in the works related to SolidWorks on the cloud.

Cloud-based software offers a wealth of potential benefits for CAD workflows, if adopted wisely. As long as users know what lies ahead and retain the option to move to the cloud only if and when they're ready, they should have no reason to feel threatened by the prospect.

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