Low-Cost 2D CAD, Part 2

25 Oct, 2005 By: Robert Green

In the last issue of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I broached the subject of low-cost 2D CAD software, asked if such a thing were truly possible in the AutoCAD landscape and concluded that the answer is often, "No." I intended to discuss low-cost 3D software in this issue, but the firestorm of e-mails generated by the last issue tells me I need to lay out some more information and further analyze the 2D AutoCAD landscape.

If you didn't see the last issue of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, you should take a few moments to do so now so you'll have the context to follow this edition.

Following is some of that reader feedback and some of my own analysis. Here goes.

What About IntelliCAD?

From several users:  "You must not be aware of IntelliCAD.  It costs only $250 and works similarly to AutoCAD."

I am aware of IntelliCAD.  In fact, I tested it way back when it became part of Microsoft's Visio product suite.  I thought then, and still think, that IntelliCAD offers a viable choice for people who don't already own AutoCAD or AutoCAD LT, simply because of the low cost.  However, for those who already own AutoCAD and can keep it on subscription for roughly $400 per year, the cost differential is not compelling enough to deal with the compatibility quirks that arise.

IntelliCAD is a great program worth keeping an eye on, but it hasn't been able to make a significant dent in AutoCAD's market share.

Cost Sensitivity and AutoCAD LT

Ten readers from smaller companies said that although they owned AutoCAD and would most likely continue to use it, they felt pinched by the cost pressure of maintaining annual subscriptions when they otherwise wouldn't upgrade every year.  Several readers speculated that "many of our users could do just as well with AutoCAD LT" and that their companies might consider replacing full-blown AutoCAD licenses with AutoCAD LT to save money.

A little history:  Ever since Autodesk began its policy of forced retirement of old AutoCAD versions, customers have complained. Reader feedback tells me there is still active dislike for the policy in small businesses that are struggling to remain competitive and are holding their dollars tight, and that switching to AutoCAD LT is viewed as a way out of the AutoCAD subscription path.

I believe Autodesk is aware of this type of thinking because LT pricing has steadily moved up in recent years.  Today, a new copy of LT costs about the same as two years of AutoCAD subscription, which means that a customer has to sit out three years of AutoCAD subscriptions before a switch to LT makes sense.

What this all portends is if enough small companies become unwilling to maintain an AutoCAD subscription, a well-crafted, AutoCAD-compatible tool at a price point significantly lower than the LT price could take some market share.  It will be interesting to watch this evolution and see how many customers choose to roll the dice, hoping that the future brings something better than AutoCAD LT. 

The Open Design Alliance Perspective

I had a lengthy response from Evan Yares assuring me that we'll see a variety of low-cost AutoCAD-killer programs in the coming years from as-yet-unspecified members of the Open Design Alliance, of which Yares is president.  I highly respect Yares' work over the years and can tell you with certainty that the man knows his technology and is very well versed in this area. 

Maybe we will see some tools that surpass IntelliCAD's current functionality, or ones that offer bulletproof AutoLISP and customization support for tool palettes, menus and scripts.  As it stands now, I've seen nothing better than IntelliCAD, so I will take a wait-and-see attitude.

I promise to keep my eyes and ears open for such  applications, and I'm quite sure Evan Yares will keep me aware of what he's up to.

On Conflict of Interest

Several readers accused me of being on Autodesk's public relations staff and insinuated that I'm paid by Autodesk to say nice things about AutoCAD.  One reader even called me "an Autodesk shill" and took a very derogatory tone.

I can state categorically that nobody at Cadalyst magazine is paid to write anything in particular about any product, be it from Autodesk or anyone else.  Cadalyst has strict editorial guidelines and a thorough editing process to ensure its published material maintains the editorial integrity that readers expect. I follow a strict policy of calling it as I see it.  When I think Autodesk misses the mark, I have no trouble saying so -- as I have in past articles about 2D innovation and licensing agreements.  I write to serve the working CAD manager. Believe me when I say I don't get rich doing so!

Bottom Line:  It's All About Business

The bottom line is that many businesses have become dependent on AutoCAD software to do their CAD work.  The reasons leading up to the market dominance of AutoCAD can be debated, but none of those reasons change the fact that it is so.

Business owners have largely stuck with AutoCAD for 2D CAD work because it makes good business sense to do so.  As soon as it no longer makes business sense to use AutoCAD, we'll see a shift.  I stand behind my original assertion that there's not enough real growth in the 2D CAD market to precipitate a shift away from AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT, but I'll keep an eye on the market and report my findings periodically.

Wrapping Up

In the next edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, we'll investigate the possibility of low-cost 3D programs taking on the midrange 3D market using the same cost metrics as I used in my 2D investigation.  I think you'll find the topic lively for the following reasons:

  • The 3D CAD market is still in its childhood.
  • There's no such thing as a 3D equivalent of DWG.
  • The majority of the world's CAD workforce is 2D only.
  • 3D software is still expensive, relatively speaking.

These factors all point to a 3D CAD market that is wide open and steeped in intense vendor competition.  The 3D CAD market now reminds me very much of the CAD market in 1986 when I was using SDRC I-DEAS and NASTRAN -- ever heard of those applications? -- to do my mechanical engineering design work. 

The next newsletter should be as much fun as the 2D issue!  Until then.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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