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Catching Up on SketchUp

27 Mar, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

What's ahead for the popular 3D modeler and its users now that @Last Software is Google?


Ever heard of the Field of Dreams business plan? Like the movie of the same name, its core principle is, "Build it, and they will come." Believe it or not, that's how several AEC industry veterans founded @Last Software and launched SketchUp, a simple 3D sketching program that has a very devoted base of users. And who came? Just about everyone. Nemetschek, Graphisoft and other big-name vendors partnered with @Last to develop SketchUp plug-ins for their products. Then Google arrived. Soon after SketchUp plugged into Google Earth, Google gobbled up @Last Software.

Credit goes to Randall Newton, editor-in-chief of AECnews.com, for what was arguably one of the earliest reports of Google's interest in @Last Software ("@Last Software and the Great Google Rumor," October 7, 2005). At the time, @Last Software's cofounder Brad Schell deflected that buzz by pointing out to Newton that in the past, people had similarly speculated his company might be acquired by Autodesk, Bentley, Adobe or Microsoft. Succumbing to an acquisition by any of these companies, Schell told Newton, "would have been a betrayal of the vision behind @Last."

But it's Google
Apparently it's different with Google. In SketchUpdate 03.14.06, which serves as the official announcement of the acquisition in the absence of a press release from either company, Schell says, "We were building the Google Earth plug-in for SketchUp, and it quickly became apparent that we could really stir things up together. ... [It] would have been impossible for us to feel good about this acquisition if we didn't feel our culture, our users and our mission would be in good hands."

Jeff Martin, senior marketing director at @Last, is still adjusting to his new life as a Google employee. (Read his blog entry, "A New Home for @Last Software.") He urges the media not to read too much into the lack of an official press release. "Google sometimes doesn't operate conventionally like other companies," he says. "Putting a blog up is a more interactive way to put [the announcement] out. It spreads just as quickly as a press release."

Reflecting on Google's previous acquisition of Keyhole and the subsequent release of a free version of Google Earth, some CAD and GIS bloggers grow gleeful over the prospect of a free version of SketchUp. Gary Smith and Josh Friedman of Green Mountain GeoGraphics are ESRI resellers and SketchUp users. Both think a free version of SketchUp is not likely, considering the software's current inexpensive pricing ($495). "A more likely path would be to have a version of SketchUp as a module that could be purchased and added to the Google Earth Pro version [$400/year]," says Smith. Google's Martin won't comment on postacquisition pricing plans for SketchUp.

It Makes Sense
Matt Mason, director of R&D at Avatech Solutions, was involved in developing the Avatech Earth Connector plugin for importing AutoCAD-based architectural objects into Google Earth. Mason observes, "[SketchUp's] read-write capabilities and georeferencing features can bring more benefits to Google Earth and Google Map." He observes the acquisition initially perplexed some people because the search engine giant's past purchases had been mainly presentation and data-organization technologies -- for example, Keyhole. But, as he sees it, acquiring a Web 2.0-type content-creation technology such as SketchUp makes sense for Google. Avatech is currently developing a plug-in for importing Autodesk Revit objects into Google Earth.

SketchUp user Smith says, "I knew it was always a risk that someone would buy @Last. The SketchUp product was just too good not to be a target for purchase by someone. Perhaps my biggest fear was that [@Last Software] would be acquired for its technology and its SketchUp product immediately removed from the market, the way GeoTango was closed by Microsoft in December. Fortunately, indications are that SketchUp will remain an available product and continue to grow and evolve."

Microsoft purchased the Toronto-based 3D earth visualization-technology provider GeoTango the day before Christmas 2005, as part of "MSN's rapid push into creating an immersive mapping and local search framework," according to the announcement. GeoTango's site has since been cleansed of all content, save a single homepage with contact info for press and previous customers.

Smith's colleague Friedman remarks, "As a GIS user who uses SketchUp, I would hope that the tools for using SketchUp in a GIS context continue to develop. Given the information that SketchUp and Google have released, I do not really have any concerns about the future."

More Details to Come
@Last founder Schell reassures SketchUp users on his blog: "The goal here is to introduce SketchUp to a wider audience and to continue to make it the best 3D software around. SketchUp is only going to get better -- I promise." Google spokesperson Lynn Fox says, "More details will emerge as Google begins to integrate the product."

So the SketchUp brand remains, but @Last Software is now Google. Even though he acknowledges that the acquisition is good news, Smith admits he, perhaps for selfish reasons, sometimes wishes @Last had remained independent. "Someone like me can interact more closely with the development team [of a small, private company]. It is really fun and stimulating," he says. Now that @Last is a division of Google, he wonders if that opportunity might diminish.

Additional Resource
@Last Software's responses to FAQs on the acquisition: click here.
SketchUp users express concerns: click here.




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