Conceptual Inspiration for Less Than $200 (Tech Trends Feature)1 Nov, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong
Triple Squid dives into the CAD pool with a low-cost modeler.
His pet rabbit Jo Jo was hopping around somewhere in the background, and Michael Gibson, previously employed at Robert McNeel & Associates and Microsoft, checked the bulletin board dedicated to the public beta of MoI, or Moment of Inspiration, his new company's flagship product.
"The last time I checked, it was more than 100,000 downloads," he said. "As of right now, there're 1,004 people registered on the MoI bulletin board."
Gibson named his company Triple Squid Software because he once scored triple points with the word squid in a Scrabble game. The company headquarters is located in the basement of his home in Seattle, Washington. It consists of "a messy desk, two 17" flat-paneled AG Neovo monitors, and a couple of computers," he said.
The MoI Beta is a 4.6 MB download, a surprisingly compact package. In October, Gibson plans to start selling version 1 for $195 — less than what you'd pay for an iPhone and slightly more than what you would for an iPod. His vision for the software is to "make it quick and easy to do simple things," he declared.
As sensible as it sounds, this philosophy is actually an anomaly in the CAD market, where complexity is the norm and mastering a software package can take a lifetime. It's difficult to predict whether MoI from Gibson's seafood-named company will sink or swim, but one thing is certain: It's bound to challenge conventional CAD thinking.
Gibson is forthright about the limitations of MoI. One of the reasons he can afford to sell the software for this price, he said, is because "MoI just doesn't do everything that many people would expect from a CAD program. For example, there isn't any way to add annotative-type dimensions or any kind of printing or rendering. The focus is exclusively on modeling, for now."
Gibson is betting that the consumers will consider these omissions a fair tradeoff for the low purchase price. In time, he plans to add more features to MoI, but he doesn't want to be toiling for decades in his basement before releasing a product. Without a revenue stream, Triple Squid would simply go belly up, he said.
MoI's modeling engine is IntegrityWare, the same kernel embedded in Rhino, Bentley, and Autodesk Alias. Gibson acknowledged that the comparative affordability of IntegrityWare (versus parasolid or ACIS kernels) was the reason for his selection.
"I didn't have a whole lot of choices," he said. "I'm starting out on my own, so I didn't want to have a royalty-based license. I pay a fixed amount per month [with IntegrityWare]."
Figure 1. MoI's strengths include Boolean operations. The boat cleat (left) and conceptual rain-collection device (right) show the types of curved designs users can create.
Defining MoI Territory
On the MoI discussion board, someone asked where exactly the software fits in: "Mechanical, industrial design, or conceptual design?" In response, Gibson quipped, "Do I have to pick only one? MoI has elements of all of these to a certain extent. Probably more towards the industrial design and conceptual design, though."
In the same thread, addressing the poster's question about creating "an accurate CAD model" and "an inner model like [a] rib," Gibson wrote, "All the drawing tools in MoI allow for entering specific widths and heights when you use them . . . There are also a wide range of snapping tools to allow you to snap points on to exact locations when drawing . . . You can [create an inner model] by creating some geometry for the rib and then using Boolean operations to merge it into the main model. But this is a good example where something like SolidWorks becomes a lot better. They have many more specialized tools for really quickly creating manufacturing details like ribs and socket holes."
Someone else asked, "Why not take the open source route? You [will] probably get more out of selling supports for companies that use your software and the community can help."
Gibson replied, "Giving the product away for free and selling support only seems to me like a very complicated and uncertain business plan. I don't want my business to be complicated and uncertain, I want my business to be simple and easy to manage."
The Target User
"I know it's very common in the software community to think of an ideal user when developing a product, but I don't really think that way," said Gibson. "I think more about the tasks the product can do."
When pressed, he identified the target user as "an artistic user who doesn't have a technical background." MoI is ideal for such a user because it doesn't require a great deal of time investment for intensive training, Gibson pointed out.
"They've tried but failed to break into using CAD as a part of their regular workflow because of the high investment needed — not just money investment either, but time required to study and take training courses to learn how to operate complex software," Gibson noted.
Gibson's not pitching MoI as the primary CAD tool. He openly acknowledges that MoI doesn't have the features to automatically produce shop drawings, something most engineers expect from a typical CAD package. Think of it as a supplementary product, he suggested.
The Tablet Plan
When it comes to conceptual design, most designers would probably agree that the pen is mightier than the mouse. The latter's point-and-click mechanism just doesn't give artists the same control over their lines and strokes.
Gibson should know about how artists work. According to him, he was the developer responsible for Rhino, counted among the industrial designers' preferred nonuniform rational B spline (NURBS) modelers. Even naming the software after an amphibious beast with an interesting contour was his idea, he said. So when he decided to target individuals with a creative bent with MoI, he explored the Tablet PC platform.
"The artists would get frustrated with, for example, right-clicking on the [Tablet PC's] stylus, which isn't easy," he observed, reflecting on what he had learned while developing Rhino. He worked to remove as many of those obstacles as possible in his new software. "With MoI, everything you can do with a pen, you can also do it with a left-click on the mouse," he explained.
Deelip Menezes, a CAD developer and the owner of SYCODE, is skeptical about Gibson's ability to keep MoI tablet-friendly indefinitely. He wrote in his blog, "In my opinion, sooner than later, Michael will have to give up the Tablet PC–friendly interface for a more normal interface . . . Normal PC users will be more willing to accept MoI if it has an interface they are familiar with." (See "Solid Modeling For $195," August 25, 2007, www.deelip.com.)
Gibson responded, "I'm definitely planning on trying to keep [the tablet-compatible interface] going as much as possible. I'm sure there will eventually be some more advanced functions that may not fit into this mold, but keeping a focus on making simple and basic operations work well with a tablet helps keep the whole process streamlined to just using simple left-clicks on things."
Peter Stevens, the spokesperson for Alibre Software, which is known for the Alibre Design software line, said, "We still think the keyboard and the mouse are the best approaches when you're dealing with parametric modeling in the production environment. We haven't really focused on the Tablet PC."
The Budget CAD Movement
If all goes according to Gibson's plan, MoI from Triple Squid will join the likes of TurboCAD ($149, from IMSI Software), FelixCAD LT (free, from GiveMePower), and Alibre Design Xpress (free, from Alibre Software) to become one of the CAD packages that cost little or nothing. Throughout the last several years, the affordable CAD movement has picked up momentum. Currently, UGS offers Solid Edge 2D for free. Similarly, CoCreate gives away the CoCreate OneSpace Modeling Personal Edition. Autodesk plans to keep Autodesk Inventor LT as a free download for another six months, the company states.
Alibre's Stevens doesn't see MoI as a competitor. "We're very focused on production," he said. "Alibre Design Xpress is to allow a mechanical person, a machinist, or someone in the production cycle to experiment with 3D." In other words, it's not meant to the less-controlled speculative exploration of conceptual ideas.
Here's where Gibson and Stevens happen to be in agreement. "[Alibre and others] are more manufacturing-centric modelers, more similar to SolidWorks," Gibson observed. "Making it easy to do simple things for a small cost — this is an open spot. I don't see anybody else here."
If MoI turns out to be the surprise hit, that spot won't remain open for long.
For more information about low-cost CAD packages, read "Getting the Last Drop," Cadalyst, January 2007, pp. 18–24.
Cadalyst contributing editor Kenneth Wong explores the innovative use of technology and its implications. E-mail him at Kenneth.Wong@cadalyst.com.