AutoCAD turns 20.0

With a history of shaping the designs of objects as varied as wine bottles and the oversized Hummer, software veteran Autodesk is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a public company by releasing the 20th version of its flagship software.

AutoCAD, a general-purpose 2D drafting program used by architects and engineers since 1982, has gotten a dynamic input tool tip in version 2006, announced Wednesday, making it possible to enter values and choose options directly using the cursor instead of the command line. Other major new enhancements include a more dynamic block feature, enabling the user to adjust one block for many purposes instead of creating new blocks, and more distinct highlighting of active objects.

Autodesk had its initial public offering in 1985 but released AutoCAD three years earlier. More than two decades is a long life span for a single product in the software industry.

"I used version 9 on Unix in school back in the late 80s," said Jay Pheng, a mechanical engineer at Laser Custom Designs LLC in Hayward, California. "Today I use version 2004."

Autodesk has averaged almost one release per year, and has changed its naming conventions since the first releases.

"It's useful," Carl Bass, chief operating officer (COO) at Autodesk, in explaining the survival of the tool, which pioneered low-end, affordable CAD (computer-aid design). The software has ultimately wound up being used "for more purposes than ever intended."

The program is today used for the design of not only cars but also the auto factories and the robots making them. Least predicted has been its use in clothing design, Bass said.

The history of the program also mirrors the computer industry throughout the years. Initially designed for the CP/M platform, AutoCAD didn't take off until the release of the DOS version.

"In the 90s, we supported up to 15 platforms at one given time," Bass said. But today, with the program consisting of 40 times more code than the first version, it's available only on the Windows platform. Bass said that Autodesk receives a small number of requests for versions on other operating systems but has no plans to support any others.

Jay Pheng mainly uses AutoCAD for creating models, the files of which are then read by a CNC machine (computerized numerical control machine) that cuts the part with a laser. He estimates that he uses only 30 percent of AutoCAD's capacity and finds the program too expensive, wishing for a simpler, cheaper version.

Pheng's hopes won't be fulfilled, according to COO Bass.

"We have the LT version for the casual user but no plan for other versions other than that and the professional," Bass said.

The survival of AutoCAD has not always been self evident.

"We've had two difficult periods," Bass said. "One was self-inflicted when we completely rearchitected the software in the beginning of the 90s. It was more expensive and took longer than we anticipated. The second time was during the Internet boom when everybody's attention was turned away from drawing tools, or anything not related to the Internet. That has changed dramatically in the last years."

Sharon Tan, a principal analyst with Gartner, explained that AutoCAD has survived for so long partly due to its substantial worldwide user base, which "has historically been hesitant to change CAD software applications," she said.

"Also, along with a substantial user base, there is an even greater base of drawings in the AutoCAD DWG file format. File translations are not always perfect, so from the user's viewpoint, not having to translate a DWG file into another format is a plus - hence the desire to stick with the application they already have," Tan said.

Publicly traded Autodesk is today doing well financially, ending its fourth fiscal quarter Jan. 31 with reported net revenues of US$356 million.

The company tries to keep its stronghold on the market by upselling its software and retiring older versions. An annual AutoCAD subscription is AUD$640 whereas an upgrade is AUD$880.

"The subscription ensures a steadier revenue stream during the course of a year," Bass said. "And we don't need to spend money marketing upgrades."

According to Bass AutoCAD has 6 million users roughly split between the LT and the professional version. Of that total, 600,000 are subscribers.

Autodesk also today announced updated releases for most of its other products including:

-- Revit Building 8 has been upgraded with a feature to bring revisions and markups from DWF Composer back into Revit models and with interference detection that scans models for conflicts between user-specifiable elements and systems.

-- Buzzsaw service has been enhanced with project portfolio monitoring features and new workflow features for easier communication, sharing, and tracking of project information throughout the lifecycle of a project.

-- The 3D design software Inventor 10 has new design features that prevent "over-engineering" for time saving.

-- Architectural Desktop 2006 now features Project Standards, which automate the maintenance and synchronization of style definitions and display settings across a multifile project. Also new is easy conversion to the design Web format file (DWF).

-- Building Systems 2006 now features improved design accuracy, easier access to engineering design data and simpler exporting to third-party applications including the DWF format for web browsers.

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