Architects have long grumbled about Autodesk’s neglect of its leading BIM platform, Revit. Those frustrations seemingly came to a head in recent weeks, catalyzed by the publication of a damning open letter to Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost last month from 17 architecture and engineering firms, including Grimshaw, Zaha Hadid Architects, and BVN Architectural Services.
The litany of offenses outlined in the letter, which includes poor communication from the software giant and a perceived mismatch between cost increases and stagnated product development, won’t come as a surprise to most Revit users. Likewise, Autodesk’s responses aren’t particularly revelatory. So far it has published three replies—here, here, and here—that largely acknowledge the issues, commit to further listening, and reiterate Autodesk’s strategy. To me, the most interesting aspect of the letter is what it reveals about the increasingly fraught relationship between architects and their most important partner: Autodesk.
When you step back, the extent of Autodesk’s influence over the architecture industry is stunning. People I’ve spoken with inside and outside Autodesk say that virtually every large practice in the U.S. uses Revit to produce BIM deliverables—with estimates as high as 90% of U.S. firms and upwards of 80% of U.K. firms. Autodesk won’t divulge Revit’s exact market share, though it does dispute those numbers. Amy Bunszel, Autodesk’s senior vice president of design and creation products (which includes Revit), who responded to my questions through a spokesperson, says that “while we are proud of the industry acceptance of Revit and our success with customers, this is a dynamic industry with a lot of competitive software being used by firms across the board.”
Still, it is safe to say that the majority of American architecture firms buy software from Autodesk and many use Revit. Thus, even the most minor upgrade to Revit can be cause for celebration. Earlier this year, Autodesk released an update that allowed designers to create walls that weren’t vertical. Previously, architects could either draw slanted walls using cumbersome workarounds or avoid designing them all together. Such is Autodesk’s power: It can dictate not only the effort required to design a slanted wall but perhaps whether a designer will create one at all.
Naturally, one of the complaints in the open letter is that the core features of Revit haven’t advanced meaningfully in the past five years—people have requested the ability to slant walls for years. In his response to the letter, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost acknowledges that the pace of Revit development has slowed because the company has focused more on Revit’s MEP and structural capabilities. But its attention is returning, he writes: “At the beginning of this year we significantly increased our engineering investment in Revit Architecture.”
One of the original letter writers, Iain Godwin, tells me that in addition to Revit’s stagnant development, Autodesk’s switch to subscription-based software model in early 2016 had been painful. Wall Street had responded positively to the development, sending Autodesk’s stock soaring, but Godwin says many users have felt “manipulated” by the license changes "and don’t feel like they have been given value.”
“With the move to subscription,” Bunszel says, “it’s easier than ever for customers to vote with their feet.” In a sense, she’s right. Theoretically, firms could cancel their subscription with Autodesk at any time and jump to another BIM platform the same way a consumer might cancel Netflix and signup for Hulu.
But in my reporting for this piece, I couldn’t find a single large American firm that had ever transitioned off Revit. There are certainly firms flirting with the idea. HOK, a notable early adopter of Revit, recently formed a partnership with Autodesk rival BricsCAD. But practices are so invested in Revit that it can be hard to escape. Companies didn’t just buy a Revit license— they trained staff to use Revit, developed Revit content, and conditioned clients to expect Revit deliverables. And in doing so, they are at the mercy of Autodesk’s next action or inaction, as it were.
The open letter was but one of many recent attempts by the architectural community to get Autodesk’s attention on issues of software pricing, performance, and functionality. In the past year alone, one technology leader—who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing their relationship with Autodesk—had been invited to sign two letters and participate in one public forum, all aimed at collectively calling for action from software developer. Up until five years ago, they had felt like Autodesk’s partner. Now when they talk to the company, they say it seems “surprised by what we want and dismissive.”
Recently, when the tech leader’s licensing agreement with Autodesk came up for renewal, they considered switching their firm to ArchiCAD, a BIM platform developed by GraphiSoft. In terms of features, they thought ArchiCAD seemed comparable to Revit, perhaps even better in some ways. Financially, ArchiCAD’s licensing cost was less than the $1 million-plus they spend annually with Autodesk—even after factoring in the price of retraining hundreds of staff and redeveloping BIM content. But when their firm started getting serious about the deal, the tech leader began reading through past contracts with clients and realized that many required projects either to use Revit or to deliver data using Autodesk’s proprietary .rvt file format. Their firm couldn’t afford to lose this work so they stayed with Revit—and with Autodesk.
Autodesk’s dominance of the BIM market wasn’t always a forgone conclusion. Yes, the developer’s first product, AutoCAD, was a huge success. But history is full of companies with breakout hits that didn’t see the next big thing coming: Nokia, Blockbuster, Kodak. The late business analyst Clayton Christensen calls this tendency for successful companies to miss critical developments the “innovator’s dilemma.” Say what you will about Autodesk, but its transition to BIM was masterful.
While the concept of BIM had been developed decades earlier by the like of Chuck Eastman and Jonathan Ingram, Autodesk helped make it mainstream. In the early 2000s, Autodesk faced formidable competition in the BIM market by the likes of Graphisoft and Bentley, both of which had been selling BIM software since the 1980s. Dassault Systèmes was entering the market with CATIA, a sophisticated design platform. And then there was Revit, a small, independent startup founded in 1997. Autodesk acquired Revit for $133 million in 2002.
I spoke with a former Autodesk employee involved in the acquisition and subsequent development. They say Dassault had a huge head start. The French company had an established product already in use by Frank Gehry, FAIA, on iconic projects like the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. It also had infrastructure in place to sell and support enterprise software. Yet Dassault fumbled the opportunity. It refused to lower it prices, charging tens of thousands of dollars per license. It lost sight of the wider architecture community.
Revit's founders took a different path. In Mastering Revit Architecture 2010 (Wiley, 2009), Matt Jezyk, an early Revit product manager, writes that an important resource during this early period was “a small set of customers who believed in the vision and were not afraid to stick their necks out and try out software, and were vocal in telling us what did and did not work.” Autodesk continued with this collaborative approach. It engaged architects and started spending, taking some of the profits from AutoCAD and reinvesting it into developing and marketing Revit. Autodesk was so effective that some people came to use the terms “Revit” and “BIM” interchangeably.
Unlike its competitors, Autodesk didn’t just sell the features of Revit to architects. Instead, it started priming the market by talking to engineers, contractors, building owners, building operators, and governments about the importance of BIM data.
Architects inadvertently helped set the stage for Autodesk’s success. As a whole, the profession has been notoriously slow to adopt new technology. It took decades to replace drafting boards with computers and a similar amount of time to trade 2D CAD for BIM—a transition some firms are still making. Even those that made the jump didn’t always do so eagerly. According to a software engineer at Autodesk, “for all the people saying 'Please, please change things,' there is an equal number saying 'Please, please don’t change anything.”
Still, for a profession that specializes in telling others about the future of buildings, workplaces, hospitals, cities, and whatever else it fancies, architects are surprisingly reluctant to turn that foresight inward. Time and time again, when given the opportunity to develop new tools, to invest in R&D, to create new design services, and to be technology leaders, most firms have opted to be led. This tendency to hold back and let someone else go first worked well for firms when Autodesk was helping develop a new market for BIM, but it also created a situation where architects abdicated their technological leadership.
I remain skeptical about the effectiveness of writing letters to Autodesk. That July open letter focuses on the failings of Autodesk, but the root cause is a larger breakdown in the relationship between architects and the software provider. If the letter teaches us anything, it is that Autodesk can neglect Revit for years, change the pricing model, anger customers, and yet still trust that firms will be loyal customers. Users can complain about it, but realistically Autodesk could do nothing and firms will continue paying.
“It’s clear from this recent feedback some gaps have developed,” Autodesk's Bunszel tells me. She says that the company is improving the process for submitting feedback and “working on connecting directly with our customers who signed the letter.”
What firms really need is some form of collective action. If an industry group representing a significant number of firms, like AIA, stepped in, it could rally enough players to regain control. It could plausibly advocate for—and even mandate—open BIM standards that would make it easier for architects to switch software vendors. It could jointly negotiate to keep software prices reasonable and submit prioritized feature requests. Instead, for now, firms are rowing in different directions.
In many ways, the tension between architects and Autodesk parallels a growing animosity between the government and large technology companies over concerns that the latter have become too powerful. At a time when Congress is interrogating leaders from Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) about their allegedly monopolistic business practices, some designers have mused whether Autodesk should face a similar level of regulatory scrutiny.
Like the frustrated letters, such proposals are unlikely to succeed. Sure, Revit commands market share, but that hasn’t precluded other companies from developing design software. Although Revit may be a de facto fixture in the designer’s toolbox, there is space for other tools like Rhino, SketchUp, and Enscape. As Bunszel explains, “a single tool like Revit cannot solve all problems for our customers.” She has been investing some of Autodesk’s resources in developing the Revit API and Autodesk Forge, in part to make it easier for Revit to interface with other software. With designers spoiled for choice, it is hard to conclude that Autodesk has stifled competition like other large tech companies.
Autodesk’s prevalence creates other challenges for the company. Like most tech companies, it is under pressure from shareholders to continuously grow, which is hard given that it’s already a giant. The company is clearly eyeing the construction industry, which is orders of magnitude larger than the architecture industry. This may explain why it slowed development of Revit’s architecture capabilities in favor of expanding its MEP and structural potential.
But for Autodesk to be successful, it needs to maintain this foothold in the architecture market. The open letter from the 17 firms articulates a situation reminiscent of the moment before Autodesk acquired Revit, when AutoCAD was getting long in the tooth and competitors, like Dassault, were lining up to offer architects something better. This time, it’s Revit that looks dated. As before, Autodesk needs to stay ahead of its competition without angering legacy customers who don’t want Revit to change.
One such competitor hoping to carve out a portion of Autodesk’s rich customer base is Modumate, a design platform built on the Unreal gaming engine. The company’s founder and CEO Richman Neumann calls it “The Sims on steroids.” (Modumate chief technology officer Jason Shankel was a software developer for the video games Sim City and The Sims.) I ask Neumann if he’s worried about competing against a juggernaut like Autodesk. He laughs and says that Autodesk has only generated three significant design platforms in-house: AutoCAD, Inventor, and Fusion360. It bought its other star platforms, which include Maya, 3dsMax, and Revit.
This leads me to what is likely not a satisfying answer for the letter writers. The reconciliation between architects and Autodesk ultimately may not involve Autodesk fixing Revit, but rather acquiring whatever comes after it.
The views and conclusions expressed are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine, The American Institute of Architects, nor Hassell.
This article has been updated since first publication.