Let’s just get it out there: I love user conferences. The marketing hype, neat stuff in the vendor/sponsor area, new product announcements, a motivational speaker … the whole thing. The best part, though, is hanging out with users. I talk to users all year long but the nature of what I do puts me most in touch with ones who are advanced in their implementations or work for large companies. User conferences give me access to a much wider cross-section of designers, engineers and analysts and lets me see how small companies or the less tech-savvy cope with the flood of technology that people like me tend to take for granted.

Bentley’s 2011 Be Together user conference in Philadelphia delivered on all counts. The company made product and partnership announcements galore, showcased a stunning presentation by the middle-school winners of the Future City competition — and, to top it off, had Laura Handler of Tocci Building Corp. (a user!) demo one of Bentley’s coming iPad apps and describe how this would change her work for the better. I can’t cover all of the product and partnership announcements that were made during the weeklong event but here’s what I, and the people I spoke with at the event, found most compelling:

• As part of a business update that largely mirrored the conference call held in March, Greg Bentley told a standing-room-only audience that the Bentley family and employees now own most of the shares in the company. Mr. Bentley told the audience that this would enable the company to invest even more in its Microstation V8i and other platforms. I had thought this ownership stuff mattered more to industry watchers like me, but it seemed to resonate with the audience — lots of nodding heads around me, perhaps because of the link Mr. Bentley made between ownership and product innovation.

• The cloud seems all around us these days (computing in the …, not point), yet Bentley was very circumspect in its use of terminology. Mr. Bentley said that Bentley Systems is now the largest shareholder in Siteops, an AEC SaaS company, and the iPad demo clearly relied on data moving from the cloud, yet I don’t believe the word “cloud” was mentioned. Bentley Systems is focusing on the benefits rather than the mechanics of the solution, which I think will be useful in getting people to try something they might otherwise be leery of. The benefits maybe so desirable that any concerns about the technology could be mitigated.

• The other clouds, points, were everywhere at Be Together. Soon users will be able to stream point clouds in their entirety or in part via Pointools within ProjectWise; this is important as laser scanning becomes more routine and as technology makes larger models more feasible. Bentley is also working on a way to generate a point cloud from a standard digital camera. Removing the need for specialized hardware could radically change the way small jobs are carried out. Both of these teases had the people around me buzzing with how their work processes might change as these technologies roll out.

• Bentley SVP R&D Bhupinder Singh introduced the concept of “software playlists”. Implied in the “playlists” term is “it just works” — no matter where the song comes from, we can add it to our playlist, and now we should want to do the same with software. Bentley can make this claim because most of its products are built atop MicroStation or ProjectWise; it’s much harder for competitors with more fragmented products to talk about “playlists” this way. Sitting around me were the Bentley faithful, with whom this resonated — I wonder what the vibe would have been in a less partisan crowd.

• Without question, the biggest buzz was generated by Bentley Navigator and ProjectWise demos on the iPad. Bentley clearly thought through how tablets could be used in the field and appears to have provided something truly useful, rather than just cool — although these apps appear to be very, very cool, too. Ms. Handler of Tocci spoke about how her company decided to use BIM five years ago “with no idea what that meant” and today uses ProjectWise to manage Revit models. She showed how she could take the iPad to a job site, log in to ProjectWise using her standard login, download a drawing, navigate through it on site, mark it up — including adding photos taken by the iPad– and post it back to ProjectWise for action back at the office. Bentley was very smart to have such a poised user do the demo; she spoke compellingly about how important it is to have access to the latest information in the field and how essential this markup capability will be. One could almost hear Apple’s cash registers ringing up sales of new iPads as the demo progressed.

• In addition to the keynotes, I attended a number of sessions for the plant vertical. Key themes were interoperability, ISO15926 and how users of Bentley’s three plant design products (Auto Plant (not retiring), Plant Space (retiring), and Open Plant (new)) can optimize workflows to take advantage of the many enhancements coming out this year. To me, the key takeaway was the consistency ISO 15926 gives across applications, although many of the users around me were excited by the user interface refresh for Auto Plant, the new cabletray and raceway package and Open Plant’s HVAC modeler, among other things.

Bentley also announced a new partnership with Tekla to integrate Tekla Structures with Bentley’s structural modeling tools (Ram, STAAD and so on); hypermodels to enable data exchange/reuse, AECOSim for building design, analysis, energy simulation and compliance; new iWare apps that enable i-model data to be published to Excel, Access and other applications; enhancements to dozens of products … Check www.bentley.com for the full list. And, just so you know, “AECOSim” is pronounced “eco-sim”.

I think one user attendee said it best: her brain was on overload, spinning with possibilities. Once she gets back home and has time to think about it all, she said, “there will be many ways in which we can do things differently. Definitely not today and maybe not tomorrow, but soon.” Really, that’s what user conferences are all about: taking people out of their normal routines and showing them what’s possible.

Note: Bentley Systems graciously covered expenses and registration for the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.