Product Design

AfterCAD Joins the SaaS Movement

14 Dec, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

New vendors — and some old ones — bet on web-hosted software.

In May 2006, AfterCAD entered the CAD market with the launch of its AJAX-based CAD viewer AfterCAD InSite. Last week, the company joined the software-as-a-service (SaaS) movement with the debut of AfterCAD Online (a "soft launch," as company CEO Chris Boothroyd puts it).

Previously, AfterCAD InSite was licensed for roughly $1,995. Under the new plan, subscribers can access the software from a standard browser and use its viewing, markup, and collaboration features for as little as $39.95 a month. Depending on the volume of files handled, the storage space required, and the level of support desired, subscribers can choose from the bronze, silver, and gold packages (see pricing chart here for details).

What's New
Early incarnations of AfterCAD InSite didn't support 3D. The software displayed 3D objects as static isometric images. The latest version, by contrast, offers full 3D rotation, powered by the open-source rendering engine OGRE.

AfterCAD Online, a SaaS CAD viewing and markup tool, takes advantage of the rendering power of open-source engine OGRE to provide 3D visualization.

Through an integrated toolbar, AfterCAD offers zooming, panning, annotation, measurement, and other features normally expected of collaboration tools. In addition, it provides the option to display the DWG file as a line drawing (added in response to early users' demand, Boothroyd says). The file-type support matrix posted at AfterCAD's site indicates the company has implemented comprehensive support for DWG, but development work on other file types (such as DXF and COLLADA) is still ongoing. For example, you can't  currently convert a DXF file from 2D to 3D or annotate it like you could a DWG file with AfterCAD. The matrix shows the company supports complex DWG files containing Xrefs and fonts. Boothroyd reveals next on AfterCAD's agenda is to add support for DGN and IFC.

With AfterCAD Online, you can use the viewing and markup features like zooming, panning, annotation, and layer displays through a standard browser.

The Market at a Glance
AfterCAD is but one of the latest firms serving the CAD collaboration market to migrate to SaaS. Recently, Clarizen launched an online project management portal where subscribers could maintain and manage project-related items (folders, deadlines, task assignments, and so on) for as little as $21.95 per user per month. Clarizen was preceded by Aligni, which offers on-demand parts management services under the same business model for $15 per month for a single-user starter kit. These providers were preceded by Arena Solutions, which develops and markets product lifecycle management (PLM) modules under the same principle.

With SaaS, subscribers rely on the vendor to provide and maintain the offsite servers, security protocols, network setups, and software components. Part of the vendors' value proposition is their reliability, their ability to keep the portal operating and accessible 24/7. For this reason, established players, such as Arena Solutions, with a proven track record will find it easy to garner business (Arena, for instance, guarantees 99.5% system uptime in its service-level agreement). By the same token, newcomers may need to work harder to earn the trust of potential subscribers.

Both Autodesk and SolidWorks have developed their own online drawing viewers, deployable as SaaS (no software installation, accessible via a browser). Autodesk Freewheel, which used to be a technology preview at Autodesk Labs, is now part of the official product lineup. SolidWorks' version, called Drawings Now, is still in SolidWorks Labs. Both are available free, which puts pressure on newcomers entering the collaboration market for profit to offer functionalities not available in the CAD vendors' free versions.

Informative Graphics, one of the most recognized names in the viewer market, continues to sell its products like Brava! as thin-client solutions (you download and install a small file to communicate with the other software components hosted elsewhere). But if SaaS offerings like AfterCAD Online catch on, thin-clients may eventually thin out.

For more on web-hosted products, read "Autodesk University 2008, Part II: Cloud computing in the forecast for desktop-dominated CAD market."

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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