What’s the deal with 2D software?

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We all recognise that CAD software isn’t cheap, especially our 3D tools. But the complete opposite appears to be happening to 2D software, which now has a glut of products that are free. Martyn Day wonders what the deal is

I keep being reminded by my colleague, Al Dean, that 2D is not what DEVELOP3D is about, usually said in words of fewer syllables and with more colour.

Call me old school, but I do persevere to keep up to date on what is still an essential part of most real projects, 2D documentation, lines, arcs and if you are really lucky, proper circles.

While there’s a huge gladiatorial melee going on for 3D supremacy, it’s important to note that there is an equally epic struggle going on for the hearts and minds of designers who may need to sketch or
document in the X,Y plane. We all know it’s a market that is pretty much owned by Autodesk with AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT but there still seems to be plenty of activity in the vertically challenged side of the market, with new 2D products being developed.

What is making an increasingly regular ‘feature’ of these new drawing systems is that they are, by and large, free. With Autodesk charging well over £1,000 for its entry level drafting with AutoCAD LT, the cost difference is, to say the least, extreme. So, is AutoCAD and LT overpriced or are these free systems, in a word, crap? Well, one could assume that the free CAD products that are available are built at home by enthusiasts but that isn’t true. The two latest ‘free’ contenders are actually from very credible, serious companies with professional products; IMSI, developer of TurboCAD has its free DoubleCAD XT drawing tool and then there’s DraftSight from CAD giant, Dassault Systèmes, the creator of Catia and SolidWorks.

With a recession on, and cash being tight, the competitors hope to push Autodesk for its sales and re-subscriptions of 2D CAD. However, the 2D professional market is primarily based on AutoCAD
DWG compatibility and is still key to any competitor’s success.

DWG is the lingua franca of the design industry. Historically a low-cost DWG clone called IntelliCAD attempted to break Autodesk’s lock on the market but failed. Since then, Autodesk has always made a lot of noise about the dominance of DWG, even making AutoCAD self-aware when it opens up a DWG created by a non-Autodesk product to warn the user there could be a chance of corruption.

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Despite Autodesk’s 3D aspirations and new products, DWG is still exceedingly important for Autodesk bottom-line revenue. So, for now, file formats are important and Autodesk is keen to fight off competitors, including tool kit provider, the Open Design Alliance (ODA), which reverse engineers the DWG format for Autodesk’s competitors like IMSI. So why free 2D software now?

New business models: In the past software was developed and sold through a distributor and a channel. This is still applicable to the big vendors, but the advent of the Internet has allowed small companies to cut out the middle tiers and go direct. Not only that, but innovate the business model, allowing free versions, adware and direct contact with users.

Products like Google SketchUp have proved that this can work exceptionally well. Free 2D CAD is, in part, possible due to the web and makes quick market-share attainable. From that audience, services can be sold.

In a mature market, grab mindsets: When there is an 800lb gorilla in the market, you have to do something to shake things up. Giving away software is not a bad idea, so long as it’s good. IMSI’s TurboCAD is popular but long suffering against AutoCAD, DoubleCAD XT is free but there is a pro, paid for, upgrade version – so you can see the revenue stream idea.

For DS, it had a legal problem with Autodesk over its SolidWorks DWG editor, because of the name and concerns over the drafting engine lying underneath.

A new AutoCAD clone was recently released by Graebert software called ARES, which, in turn, Dassault Systèmes has licensed and now forms the core framework of its free drafting tool, DraftSight. While based on ARES, DraftSight is very much a Dassault Systèmes product and is free for all comers, although the company hopes that customers will want to pay for support.

Successfully competing against Autodesk in 2D has never been done. Not even Autodesk’s new products have found that easy, so history is against DoubleCAD XT and DraftSight

For Dassault the goal is broader than giving away 2D. The company is in a serious struggle with Autodesk in many other areas and hopes to land some blows. It is hoped that DraftSight will stop its customers requiring to subscribe to AutoCAD 2D products and rely on Dassault Systèmes technology instead – perhaps even ‘monkey’ with the AutoCAD sales pipeline if it proves a success. This isn’t out of philanthropy but part of a strategic campaign.

Ralph Grabowski, CAD book author and editor of the Upfront ezine told me that ‘ARES (which lies underneath DraftSight) is a pretty good CAD editor and is backed up with a huge sales organisation, worldwide distribution, and tag-along marketing. Plus: selling support optionally, reassures large corporations. By the end of next year, we will see if the DraftSight strategy works. Or if it is just another IntelliCAD.”

Successfully competing against Autodesk in 2D land has never been done. Not even Autodesk’s new vertical products have found that easy, so experience and history are against DoubleCAD XT and DraftSight making much of an impact. However, in this economic climate perhaps product allegiances will be more readily tested.

It’s my view that Autodesk has pushed AutoCAD LT pricing way up into the stratosphere and it knows it. I also think the combination of recession and new business models puts Autodesk’s assured domination at some risk. However from what I have seen of the interfaces and capabilities of the ‘wannabes’ neither of them have got the feature set or interface quite right yet, but software is a moving target.

Martyn Day is consulting editor of DEVELOP3D.He is amazed by the level of drafting functionality offered by the new breed of free 2D CAD tools. Even Etch a Sketch costs £14.99.

Martyn Day assesses the value of the 2D software gift horse


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