#AU2016 bridges point/platform, individual/teams, old/young

Nov 28, 2016 | Hot Topics

Have you ever been to AU? I’ve been to perhaps 10 or 15 –tend to lose count after the first 5 or so– and they continue to captivate. This year’s was the usual combo of showbiz and nerdly, huge and more contained, general and targeted. We went from the relatively small (200? people) developer day events focused on Autodesk’s Forge development platform to the massive, loud, produced keynotes, to small rooms with deep dive sessions on everything from getting started with 3D printing to helping Autodesk determine the future direction of key products. It’s got to be quite difficult to put on an event of this scale, and trying to wrap my arms around it all is equally challenging. Here are my key takeaways (and keep in mind, they’re MINE — 10,000 attendees are likely to have 10,000 different takeaways):

  • Autodesk isn’t the same as it was even a few years ago. Yes, there’s the whole business about subscriptions, but there’s also a quiet confidence that it’s all starting to come together. The business model change (to ratable subscriptions from perpetual/maintenance) certainly had a lot of customers buzzing but many were at the event to see what the subscriptions would give them, and not just complaining about the change. Some of it was resignation, sure, that they had no future choice in the matter; but a lot of the people I spoke with wanted the new features that would be available to them as part of the sub. The bosses liked the consistent cost, operating budget expense item; the worker bees like the zippy new toys. Not across the board; there’s still a bit of grumbling, but it seems less than last year.
  • What’s coming together is the product portfolio. CEO Carl Bass and CTO Jeff Kowalski are convinced that the platforms the company is building for its 3 main business areas (manufacturing, with Fusion 360; AEC with BIM 360; and media and entertainment, Shotgun) are the correct solutions to their customers’ problems. Mr. Bass said that Autodesk, after 30 years, has “adequate point solutions for most problems out there. Most of the issues I see with productivity are moving data from place to place in incompatible formats. The way we get people productive is to work on the team aspect and try to bring more tools together.” These cloud platforms, as we’ve seen with Fusion, will grow to encompass more and more of the tasks that used to require separate, point solutions. It’s an interesting strategy, and one we’ve seen before, often. IT buyers have been trying to figure out the whole best-of-breed vs. suites thing for decades — what’s different today is the world of work. Where we used to have a dedicated person per task or type of job, we’re now much more fluid. Workers have to move between tasks and point solutions, and they really shouldn’t have to care about the specifics of the solutions to get their jobs done. During the technology keynote, the Autodesk team did a great job explaining their vision; I had no idea of the scope of the media and entertainment offering — check out the whole thing here.
  • Each of the platforms is driven by a Common Data Environment –in other words, one for AEC, one for manufacturing– that will include Autodesk products but also third parties’. And in the cloud, to a large extent, to offer what Autodesk calls a “connected experience”. In manufacturing, for example, Fusion 360 will move from conceptual design through detailed design, to simulation and manufacturing. The idea is that designers and engineers start in Fusion and never have to leave; they add data as the design progresses, collaborate with partners — all in the managed environment of Fusion 360, with PLMish goodness in the background to track it all. On a Mac, on a mobile device, on a PC. Product manager Stephen Hooper said that the goal of Fusion 360 is to fully unite design and manufacturing in a single complete solution — rather than deploying multiple products. Mr. Hooper’s examples included integrated PCB layout in the context of its 3D design; sheetmetal design and unfolding/fabrication; mechanical simulation at the point of design creation –for optimization not validation– via pay-as-you-go cloud credits; shape optimization via generative design to create lattices that may make stronger, lighter products; and others.
  • The BIM 360 story is similar, a platform that is designed to hold a project from ideation through construction and operations. One of the coolest new things at AU2016 is Project IQ, which uses machine learning to pore over historical construction data to model and cut risk in construction projects. Construction continues to be a major focus for Autodesk’s AEC team; this year’s Construction Launch Pad session dealt extensively with improving worker safety — I hope to write more about that sometime soon.
  • Mr. Hooper said that “Fusion is free to startups, students and enthusiasts“. We’ve not heard much about enthusiasts before. Autodesk was all about the makers in the last few years, and seems to have changed its language to recognize that not all people who might use its products are makers. “Enthusiasts” is a bit wishy-washy but that lack of specificity might actually make Fusion 360 more accessible. To find out if you qualify for the free offer, go here.
  • What’s interesting in these offerings is the mashup of technology that’s task-specific (like generating G-code) and platform-neutral (browser-based access, for example), with business models that may be challenging now but will, ultimately, be the norm. Mr. Hooper said that Fusion 360, when not free, starts at $25/month. That’s a pretty cheap entry point at which lots of businesses can afford to kick the tires.
  • But it’s not for everyone. SVP of Products Amar Hanspal told attendees that Autodesk will continue to support and enhance existing products and bring value to subscribers even while rolling out these new platforms. That’s crucial for Autodesk, since subscribers will drop off (if they can) if there’s no new value being delivered.
  • Autodesk’s partner network, too, needs to get involved with these platforms, and are likely to do so via Forge. I was at the Forge DevCon in San Francisco earlier this year; the place was buzzing with techies trying to find that cool app or idea that would let them strike it rich. (Read my write-up here). At AU, the vibe was similarly excited but a bit more restrained: techies were in Las Vegas with their bosses, who needed business cases and profit potential. Autodesk’s Jim Quanci put together an excellent program that was just aspirational enough but within the reach of many, and included a lot of technical details to keep the programmers happy. Mr. Quanci said that Forge has already signed up something like 7,000 developers, who had created more than 2,500 apps for the app store. So far, most of the apps seem to be free –the average sale via the store is $35– but that’s clearly going to change as Autodesk extends the APIs and SDKs, and as developers grow in confidence.

A couple of other random observations:

  • Autodesk usually invites an inspiring speaker to join Mr. Bass during his keynote. The last couple of years, it’s been someone incredibly young and poised who convinces us that the world will be OK if we ever decide to retire. This year, Anna Nixon, a high school junior who already calls herself an engineer. Ms. Nixon has participated in FIRST Robotics since second grade and throws around technology terms like machine learning with incredible ease. She challenged Mr. Bass to create technology that her demographic can relate to — team oriented, visual, unobtrusive, with learning built in. When I was in second grade, I was learning how to spell. When I was 16, I would have run as fast as I could from a stage like this. A very impressive young woman who will someday be your/my boss.
  • I wandered into a number of sessions where Autodesk R&D and product management were presenting product roadmaps to users, and asking for their opinion. They employed an interesting technique: after the Autodesk team presented the work that was already planned/about to be delivered, they outlined general themes and ideas for releases that were further out and asked the audience to comment. The speakers were miced, the audience wasn’t — so the Autodeskers had a WiFi microphone in a soft bouncy cube that they threw to people who wanted to speak. It broke the ice, created giggles and let people compose their thoughts before speaking.
  • Autodesk may still be promoting that whole pyramid of customers visual –we’ll see at their investor event on December 6– but it seems less and less accurate. Yes, Autodesk still has a lot of small customers, but it’s increasingly got huge ones, too. I sat with two different AEC firms, each of which had over 50 people at AU. The pyramid may be getting flatter …

It’s very clear that Autodesk no longer wants to be known as the AutoCAD company — none of the sessions I sat in on even mentioned it. (There were many user session on AutoCAD; I just didn’t have time to attend any.) The company keynotes and analyst/media presentations didn’t really mention products all that often. The tone was much more strategic, as befits a platform company, and focused on integrating capabilities and workflows. The real question is, how far ahead of its customers is Autodesk with this message? Given that the majority of customers today use products? I spoke with a few who think that this is overdue, and that Autodesk isn’t moving fast enough — and others who think this is scary new territory, and want to go back home and just use Inventor/Revit/etc. Mr. Hanspal’s remarks indicate that there’s room for both in the “new Autodesk”; that commitment will be huge as it moves forward.

The key for Autodesk, as has always been the case, is its partner network. And that means Forge. Autodesk can’t develop all the capabilities it needs on its own — and, even if it could, there are many established competitors that it would be foolish to try to displace. Forge will enable Autodesk to move faster to more complete platforms; it’s clearly to everyone’s advantage to invest now, quickly, to build up the platform and ecosystem. One interesting aspect of Forge that I didn’t hear much about is that it should enable customers (or consultants) to hook existing workflows into the new structure during this time of transition. That’s not as sexy as a new tool to drive a robot or add VR to a BIM model, perhaps, but it is essential in protecting the investment customers have made in models, training and technology. Do I think it will ultimately work? Yes. The benefits of these connected platforms, the lack of friction, the data consistency, the speed with which teams can work, will move the laggards forward, too.

Note: Autodesk graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The cover image is of Anna Nixon, the high school engineer, during the opening keynotes session and is courtesy of Autodesk.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email