Hello, Google! (So Long, SketchUp?)

5 Apr, 2006 By: Michael Dakan

'Business as usual' seems unlikely following acquisition; plus, some reminiscing about early Autodesk

On March 14, one of the most surprising -- even shocking -- recent developments in the CAD world was the purchase of @Last Software and its nice, little 3D surface-modeler program, SketchUp, by Internet search-engine giant Google. The surprise wasn’t that Sketchup had been sold. In fact, that’s a perfectly logical outcome for a small company with a product that generated as much interest as SketchUp did in some markets. In architectural design circles, SketchUp is considered not just an intuitive modeler that is pretty easy to use, but also fun, especially when compared with the behemoths that most other CAD programs have become.

But Google? Not a CAD giant such as Autodesk or Bentley Systems? A CAD modeler is seemingly such a departure from the Google family of Internet search tools and services that generate huge revenue. Google has been expanding its reach and variety of Internet services provided -- but still, a CAD program? It doesn’t seem to make much sense in the Google world.

Congratulations are definitely in order, though, for cofounder Brad Schell and the rest of the @Last Software team. It’s nice to see the small, good guys win big in the software development world once in a while. Among the @Last Software people, who work in the laid-back, collegial atmosphere of Boulder, Colorado, the Google purchase is absolutely the biggest event ever, and a dream come true for any startup company.

Schell, who served for years as the company’s chief evangelist, hastened to post an update on his company's Web site, expressing excitement and happiness over the Google acquisition and the increased exposure and resources it will bring to his company. He was quick to reassure SketchUp users that nothing will change, and the sale would mean nothing but a better future for SketchUp.

Google, on the other hand, has been strangely quiet, treating the @Last Software purchase as a nonevent. To my knowledge, Google has yet to acknowledge the acquisition in any official way -- it hasn't issued a press release or posted the news on its Web site. This silence could signal that Google simply plans to swallow the product as its own, bringing an end to SketchUp as an independent, stand-alone product. Or perhaps it is simply a reflection of the relative importance of the event to little @Last Software and giant Google.

Unless Google has changed its entire business plan to accommodate a diverse product line in addition to its core Internet search and services business -- which seems quite unlikely -- we will probably see SketchUp become just an accessory for Google Earth. @Last Software worked with Google last year to develop a plug-in for Google Earth that allows importing a SketchUp 3D models into Google Earth’s mapping and 3D aerial imaging files. (Click here to link to that AEC Tech News article.)

What all this implies to me is that SketchUp will probably make its first appearance as a Google product when it is bundled with one of the paid Google Earth products such as Google Earth Plus or Pro edition, or perhaps in a new bundle specifically for those users who wish to add their own 3D images in Google Earth. Google has been accused of the old “shovelware” practice of packaging preexisting software accessories into its free Google Earth Pack. It's sad to think that SketchUp could end up as just another product thrown into one bundle or another, which would be a pretty lowly role for such a useful CAD modeler.

In any event, and in spite of Schell’s assurances to the contrary, SketchUp will undoubtedly change in the future to fit into its new place in the Google empire. The extent of change, and the eventual direction that change, remain unknown.

Autodesk Musings

Several weeks ago, Cadalyst Editor Sara Ferris reminisced in the Cadalyst Daily e-newsletter about Carol Bartz’ ten years as Autodesk CEO, and her marvelous effort to guide the Autodesk ship through some perilous waters as well as into some new territory -- and a new era.

This sparked my own recollections about the changes I have also seen and experienced with Autodesk for almost 25 years. This, coupled with the Google acquisition of @Last Software, spurred me to contemplate the inevitable changes that occur as companies grow, mature and mutate over time, as all successful companies must. The early Autodesk story and the early Google story are remarkably similar.

I’ve watched Autodesk change from a relatively small company with a big idea into a publicly traded corporation that wound up almost single-handedly moving an entire industry away from its roots as a specialty market wherein a single CAD seat represented a workstation investment of well over $100,000. Autodesk brought CAD into the personal computer world and made it accessible to virtually anyone in business. I'll try not to be too overdramatic, but it is interesting to think about the nature of change, the good and the bad, and the imperative of change in the business world.

For those not entirely familiar with the story of Autodesk, I recommend the book The Autodesk File, written by John Walker, founder of Autodesk and coauthor of the original AutoCAD. The book recounts Autodesk's history until the time Walker turned over the company and moved to Switzerland to pursue other interests.

The Autodesk File is currently out of print, but occasionally you can find a used copy. (At press time, a few copies were available from used book sellers.) You can download the book for free in its original, unedited form from John Walker’s Fourmilab Web site. Although this version is not as readable as the final version, it does contain some information that was cut from the final version. In all, it’s interesting reading, and its contents are still relevant today's ever-changing software business world.

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