Autodesk and the Cloud, Part 1: Customers 'Absolutely' Will Have a Choice

5 Dec, 2012 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson

At Autodesk University 2012, CEO Carl Bass says desktop tools are not going away — for now — and users should move to online apps only if it makes good business sense.

Editor's note: This article is the first in a series about Autodesk cloud-technology developments. See also, "Autodesk and the Cloud, Part 2: Fusion 360 Will Deliver Professional-Level CAD on the Cloud" and "Autodesk and the Cloud, Part 3: Experts Take Aim at Cloud Stereotypes."

Will Autodesk force customers to move from desktop- to cloud-based applications in the foreseeable future? Will the cloud provide adequate security for customers' data? And who will own data stored on the cloud — the customers who create it or the company that hosts the services?

At Autodesk University 2012 in Las Vegas last week, the company addressed all these issues and more. In the realm of CAD-related cloud technology, Autodesk is arguably a leader, and cloud-related topics were ever present at the user conference, reportedly attended by 9,000. The company announced two new and significant cloud-based apps: Fusion 360 and FormIt; presented a 90-minute Innovation Forum titled, "The Reality of the Cloud"; and broached the topic during sessions for the media, the opening keynote address, and other presentations.

In this article, I'll update you about Autodesk's plans to move (or not to move) professional CAD-related tools to the cloud and what I think it means for customers. Stay tuned for other cloud-related updates to come. Much of the information to follow is based on the reply of Autodesk CEO Carl Bass to a question I posed during a media Q&A session at last week's AU. I recorded most of Bass's reply and have posted the original video and transcript on

All Software Is Moving to the Cloud — Or Is It?

While some users still struggle to understand that the cloud is nothing more than software hosted on the Internet (as opposed to on their local computing device), software developers such as Autodesk are moving full speed ahead into the realm of software as a service, or SaaS. Autodesk, in fact, offers an impressive and growing suite of cloud-based applications branded Autodesk 360, including tools that range from building information modeling to product lifecycle management.

But is all software moving to the cloud? Yes, in fact, it is, according to Bass. He has said as much more than once in the past, and he repeated the statement again during the media Q&A: "I think if you just think broadly, about society, you say everything is moving to the cloud. … I do believe that everything's moving to the cloud."

But that's not the full story. Bass went on to say, "Moving down a level to Autodesk, I think we've demonstrated we're moving a lot of software to the cloud. I don't think that means everyone is moving to the cloud. … I think there are a lot of applications that will be done on the desktop; I think there's a lot of power and capacity there that will continue to be used."

Cadalyst Contributing Editor Curt Moreno, an Autodesk University speaker and the man behind Kung Fu Drafter, interviewed Autodesk representatives on the topic of the cloud last week. Amy Bunszel, vice-president of AutoCAD products, told Moreno, "… We are still making tremendous investments in all of our desktop products. … We have so much intellectual property [and] there is so much blending of things too, that — I don’t know — it makes no sense to me that there would be this [perception that it has to be an either/or situation]."

Clay Helm, public relations director, told Moreno, "… We've certainly been emphasizing the fact that the cloud is not an either/or [option] to the desktop. It's another choice and a way for us to reach our customers on lots of platforms." She went on to explain, "We absolutely intend to continue to support the desktop and no one should suggest otherwise. … If [an Autodesk representative] says 'moving to the cloud' in an interview, they don't mean 'moving away from the desktop.' They mean we're moving to the cloud in addition."

What About Data Security and Ownership?

Many professionals oppose using cloud-based software for CAD applications because data generated on the cloud is typically stored on the cloud, which presents uncertainties about data security. Bass is well aware that those concerns are a deal-breaker for many companies, among other things.

"I think there are a huge number of obstacles to every organization, you know, adopting cloud technology, and I don't think they're insignificant," Bass told the media. "The … one that jumps to everyone's mind is the question of security — privacy, liability — something around levels of service in some ways and concern about confidential information. I think some of those will fall by the wayside; I think others will be there. … Do you expect to see dramatic breaches of privacy? Yeah, we've already seen them. … That will continue to happen. To the extent we [store data on the cloud] or anywhere else, there will be serious things to consider. I think that is not [a concern] that goes away easily."

Bass went on to acknowledge that desktop solutions are heavily entrenched in CAD workflows today, and companies won't likely trade them for cloud-based options unless the cloud tools offer compelling advantages. He explained, "… For anyone to move to any new technology platform, you have to do more than merely replace what people have today. People do amazing things with the collective set of tools out there — whether it's the cars or the spacecraft or the aircraft or the consumer products, buildings, infrastructure that are built every day — it is amazing what people have actually done with those tools. And they are all essentially done on the desktop. And they are well integrated into the processes of the companies that do it."

Earlier in the week, Autodesk reported that the company now has more than 12 million users of its professional (primarily desktop-based) solutions, and the majority of its software licenses sit with a small percentage of customers — meaning that a tremendous amount of business lies with the very largest accounts. If, as Bass suggests, large organizations will be the slowest to leave desktop applications, and if one opts for logic over cynicism, one has to conclude that Autodesk would be foolish to abandon the desktop.

Another concern I hear frequently but that Bass didn't address is the issue of data ownership. Rumors persist that any customer data stored on the Autodesk cloud becomes the property of Autodesk; however, that isn't the case according to the Autodesk 360 Terms of Service (rev. 9/6/2011):

2. Proprietary Rights
2.1 Your Rights. As between You and Autodesk, and subject to Section 2.2 (License by You; Disclosure), You and Your licensors have and will own all right, title, and interest in and to Your Content.

Brenda Discher, vice-president of industry marketing at Autodesk, told me much the same. Following a presentation of Fusion 360 last week, Discher stated that users of that cloud-based CAD application will own the data that they create and store on the cloud, which, she reiterated, is true for all Autodesk 360 offerings. (The exception is the PLM 360 user agreement, she added, which has some differences.)

Will Customers Have a Choice About Moving to the Cloud?

"Absolutely," said Bass as he wrapped up the media Q&A, "… customers will absolutely have a choice."

He continued, "To the extent people find [the cloud] the most productive environment to be working in, they should absolutely use it. My suggestion to anyone would not even to move wholesale. Even if you love the vision of where we're going, what you should do is figure out which of the things that make the most sense and incorporate them one by one — even if you like it. If you hate it, you shouldn't do anything differently than what you're doing today."

In Conclusion

It's clear that Autodesk intends to continue delivering desktop options for customers even as it devotes increasing resources to cloud-based applications. The question I didn't have a chance to ask Bass — the one begged by his concluding remarks — is exactly how long customers will have a choice. However, based on Bass's remarks and what we know about Autodesk strategy, I'm going to guess what he would have said: No one knows. The cloud is new territory, and Autodesk can predict but cannot be certain which, when, or even if customers will take their business there. The company is aware that data-security concerns can keep customers from adopting cloud-based tools, and it knows that many customers are not likely to abandon their desktop tools without a very strong reason to do so; therefore, it seems highly likely that it will continue to develop technologies and policies and options that address those realities. And then it will be up to customers, through the choices they make, to influence how all this plays out.

Bass stated it clearly: For the foreseeable future, Autodesk professional software will continue to be available for the desktop. But customers also will be presented with cloud-based alternatives that over time will increase in number, functionality, power, and appeal. Academia and small to midsized businesses will lead the way in adopting cloud-based tools that support the CAD workflow as they begin to see compelling, practical reasons to do so. Will these tools of tomorrow be able to lure the biggest, most desktop-dependent firms to the light side? That may be the most elusive piece of this puzzle. A lot must change — and it surely will — before that would happen.

And that is one certainty in all this nebulousness: Technology changes so quickly that it's practically impossible to know which new options will surface in the next year or two — let alone the next five or ten. Cloud-based tools will undoubtedly come along that offer functionality and benefits we can't yet imagine. User agreements and data security will undoubtedly evolve as well. Today's options might not be right for you or your business, but options will change — literally, possibly — tomorrow. As Bass said in the media Q&A last week, and as I stated previously in an editorial titled "Updated Forecast," you should treat the move to cloud-based applications like any other business move. If it makes sense, do it. If it doesn't, don't. For the foreseeable future, you will have the choice.

About the Author: Nancy Spurling Johnson

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