For those tasks that we think of as being indisputably architectural—drawing details, creating massing studies, producing renders—the majority of architects practicing in the United States are almost entirely dependent on software developed by Autodesk. As a result, the company’s future plans will greatly impact how many U.S. firms practice.
On Dec. 2, approximately 10,000 people gathered inside Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Events Center to hear Autodesk’s latest announcements and road map for the future. They had come for the keynote address of Autodesk University (AU), an annual conference that combines the company’s software training with sales pitches and parties. Although the parties and lectures are the most enjoyable part of AU, I want to focus on what was said during the keynote because (far more than a party or a lecture) it has the most potential to impact how architects do their work. If you want to see the lectures, Autodesk posted many of them online.
A360 Collaboration for Revit
Inter-office collaboration has always been a struggle for the AEC industry. Even technologically advanced practices encounter frustratingly slow sync times when working collaboratively with large files across multiple offices.
Autodesk’s major announcement at this year’s AU was a new collaborative environment called A360 Collaboration for Revit, which previously went by the much more alluring code name of Project Skyscraper. It adds two features to Revit. First, it lets users sync files using Autodesk’s cloud servers. Second, it adds a chat window to Revit that allows team members to communicate. The chat interface doesn’t seem particularly compelling considering the overabundance of available communications mediums, but the file syncing is potentially significant since it saves firms from setting up their own server infrastructure and promises significantly faster syncing.
BIM managers I spoke to at AU seemed nervous about syncing project data with servers outside their control. Most were worried about the possibility of data being stolen by a hacker or a rogue employee, and a few were concerned that other cloud providers were giving data to the U.S. government—either willingly or unwittingly. That said, the convenience of A360 Collaboration for Revit is such that most multi-office firms will likely test it in the coming months. I expect the major sticking point won’t be security but rather the fact that everyone working on the project needs to be using the new platform, which costs a sizable $800 annually per user.
Free educational licenses
Autodesk’s other major announcement was that it would provide academic institutions in 188 countries worldwide with free access to all of its software. Previously, students could freely download the software to their personal computers but institutions had to pay to install it in their computer labs. Now, Autodesk software is free for everyone in the education sector: students, teachers, and institutions.
One university educator I spoke with estimated that annual Autodesk software licenses currently account for 25 percent of his technology budget. Getting this software for free represents a significant windfall for him. For Autodesk, however, it is a relatively small amount of money. The most Autodesk ever made from the educational sector was $100 million a year, which would be about 4 percent of the company's net revenue of $2.3 billion for the 2014 fiscal year. Foregoing this revenue isn’t philanthropy as much as it is a strategic investment. Autodesk is hoping that more students learn its software and put pressure on their future employers to follow suit. A similar strategy has been employed by Graphisoft for a number of years and it would be surprising if other CAD companies like Bentley didn’t make similar offerings in the battle for the hearts and minds of impressionable students.
Revit and the future of Autodesk
During the opening keynote, Autodesk’s chief technology officer, Jeff Kowalski, spent a long time hypothesizing about the future of architecture and design. It was an exciting presentation that considered how architects in the near future might be called upon to design living objects and to develop responsive environments. It was difficult, however, to see how this thinking was influencing the company’s product development.
If Autodesk has a vision for the future of design, it is not in a hurry to realize it. There were no announcements pertaining to the company’s flagship architectural software, Revit, which seems to have stagnated as of late. In the past year or so, the biggest change to Revit has been the development of the visual scripting interface Dynamo, which isn’t even developed by the core Revit team. I asked Amar Hanspal, the senior vice president in charge of Revit, why Autodesk was improving Revit so slowly when so many of its customers had expressed frustrations with the software. He said that the company is working on two or three wish-list items for the next release. Hardly the pace of development that takes Revit into the future.
In many ways, Autodesk doesn’t need to update Revit. Almost half of the company’s revenue comes from software subscriptions, a pricing model introduced in 2013 through which customers rent software instead of buying permanent licenses. Autodesk plans to switch entirely to subscription pricing in the next 12 to 24 months. Subscription customers are a stable revenue source who will continue to pay their rental fees, at least in the short term, regardless of whether Autodesk updates Revit. Autodesk doesn’t need to sell software updates, instead they can focus on growing subscription revenue either by upselling customers with new subscription products (such as the A360 Collaboration for Revit) or by finding ways to generate more subscribers (by giving away free software to institutions, for example).
Autodesk has a powerful position in the industry. It is the company that determines how the majority of U.S.-based architects work. To some extent, the fate of these architects is tied to that of Autodesk. For now, Autodesk seems content to hold the industry in much the same place it was the previous year.