With the release of a second ‘open letter’ to Autodesk, this time from Nordic architectural associations, Martyn Day explores what this means for Autodesk, AEC firms, and the AEC software industry as a whole
In the world of CAD, customer revolts are few and far between. Typically, the worst thing that can happen, from a software developer’s perspective, is customers vote with their money and migrate to a product which usurps a market leader because of cost, capability, or a technology paradigm shift. In the case of Autodesk, its customers are expressing their feelings with open letters.
The latest open letter concerning Autodesk is from Architectural Associations in the Nordics. It is yet another sign that many architectural customers are fed up with the lack of depth in Revit’s development, pricing, poor interoperability and a failure of Autodesk to meaningfully engage with customers to explicitly define Revit’s future.
Despite Autodesk’s AEC Suites and design / documentation tools generating the lion’s share of Autodesk’s AEC division’s revenue, customers saw Revit development languish in the years running up to the first open letter (2020). During the same period Autodesk spent billions of dollars on construction applications and rapidly developing cloud services.
From my conversations with architects, many are thinking that it is inevitable that they will end up moving to something else
Autodesk pushed through business model changes at pace too. First there were ‘Suites’, then new perpetual licences were phased out for subscription licences. ‘Collections’ replaced Suites, and customers were price-coerced into exchanging existing perpetual licences for subscription licences (in a 2-for-1 deal). Network licences were stopped and replaced with named user licences, with mandates of a licence per user. Even the Autodesk CEO, Andrew Anagnost, told wall street analysts that customers were in ‘licence hell’, managing so many different licence types within a single organisation. This, in turn, made every design IT manager’s job a nightmare, because Autodesk ramped up a voracious non-compliance unit that pursues minor and accidental infringements, which especially irks longstanding Autodesk customers.
The first open letter was originally going to come from a much bigger group of BIM managers and design IT Directors. For several reasons, there was a split in approach between groups. While one set of firms went the public letter route, the other chose to seek engagement directly with Autodesk contacts. This second group included BIG, Grimshaw, Herzog de Meuron, Heatherwick Studio, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) and at least three other global signature architects. From what I can tell, other than the Open Letter Group getting an additional initial ‘listening’ session where Anagnost was present, the two groups were engaged with exactly the same rounds of meetings with the Revit development team.
These customers were all heavy Revit users. One would even call them fanboys. They entered into the process in the hope that Revit re-development would be possible – and if not possible, would offer to help Autodesk develop the next generation.
Two years on and the feedback from both groups is that ‘Autodesk didn’t listen’. While there has been rejuvenated development on Revit, the kinds of features being enhanced are not the deeper, more structural underlying parts that these customers say the product needs. The Open Letter Group pointed out that despite two years of engagement, collating feature requests, Autodesk decided to put the established Revit roadmap on project management portal Trello for the public to vote on.
While Autodesk framed this as reaching out to all Revit users, the ones who were actually complaining and engaged with the Revit team, felt slighted as their feature requests have not been implemented. Other decisions, such as Autodesk’s acquisition of Spacemaker for $240 million, brought on more frustration. Architecture firms that we have spoken to that went to see the product, felt its feature set was aimed at developers rather than architects – despite the hype at Autodesk University claiming it to be a great acquisition for architects. One frustrated design IT director commented, “Think of how many years of Revit development could be done with that amount [of money]!”
In 2020, European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC) published a paper that talked about the rising costs of software, limiting licensing practices and a lack of competition in the market. The federation was so concerned by what it was hearing from its members that it started raising the issue with the European Union. This was followed up in 2021 by The Association of Consulting Engineers in Norway (RIF), which restated the exact same concerns to software developers. While these calls were made to the generic market, as Autodesk is one of the leading global vendors, it doesn’t take a genius to work out which company was one of the key targets for this message.
Now a combination of Architectural Associations from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland have joined forces to raise the issues to Autodesk in a new open letter, on behalf of their 14,000 members. Some of the firms that are being represented were part of the Revit team’s two-year engagement process, after the first open letter. This is not a repeat letter but a statement that little has changed. The firms involved in the first open letter, the firms that took the private approach and now the Architectural Associations, seem broadly in agreement that Autodesk needs to do more in every area.
Further reading: Learn what the Architectural Associations of Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland, which represent 14,000 architects, have to say
In any normal competitive market, there would be a number of alternative applications. And indeed there are a number of other BIM tools – Graphisoft Archicad, Nemetschek Allplan and Vectorworks to name but three. But the cost of moving to a different system goes beyond the software. There’s retraining, the challenge of finding skilled users of more esoteric applications, and the fundamental problem of moving out of Revit’s native RVT file ecosystems where it’s often a contractual deliverable.
Firms would prefer to stay with the tool they have heavily invested in and see it improve. This lock-in has always been an advantage in the CAD world. It’s like choosing Nikon or Canon. Once you buy all the lenses for your chosen ecosystem, it’s hard to change horses.
There will be firms who eventually bite the bullet. After the Open Letter, Graphisoft offered a six-month trial of Archicad seats to any architectural practice in the UK. This bold move, pretty much killed sales for six months, but led to the busiest year ever for Archicad. Firms like London-based David Chipperfield Architects are now on board with Archicad. The threat from Graphisoft is set to grow even further with its forthcoming integration of a full MEP capability. By going multi-disciplinary it offers more of a level playing field in terms of functionality.
From my conversations with architects, especially with signature architects, many are thinking what two years ago would have been unthinkable – that it is inevitable that they will end up moving to something else. But they don’t want to move to a system that copies the workflow of model-to-drawings – a Revit ‘clone’, as it were. If they are going to endure the pain of moving authoring tools, they want it to be next generation, able to handle huge files, have collaboration built in, truly automated drawings, be capable of digital fabrication, and powered by AI – the list goes on.
Again, their first hope was that Autodesk would listen to them about a new tool, but Revit is still successful and a volume product. Who is going to develop an authoring tool for tens of highly demanding signature architects? There are a number of start-ups but it will take them years to go beyond basic functionality. There is a hope that by telling the industry there is a gap and showing a willingness to work with start-ups that they will find what they are looking for.
Revit has been so successful that really the only other BIM tools that have survived were ones that were developed earlier or around the same time. In the last 20 years Revit’s growth has dissuaded many contenders. Amar Hanspal, ex joint CEO of Autodesk once told me that to compete against Revit you’d need $20 million to develop the software and $50 million in marketing. This has ensured that Revit has had very few threats in its lifetime. However, another upshot of the original Open Letter was to signal start-ups that creating a Revit competitor with a fresh code-base, utilising modern CPU, GPU and cloud resources, wasn’t perhaps such a crazy thing to do, and leading architecture firms would be willing to help guide development. Venture Capitalists (VCs) have even funded competitive products with tens of millions of dollars.
Autodesk is undoubtedly the leader in the volume AEC market. It dominates Building Information Modelling (BIM) with Revit, and documentation production with AutoCAD. As a company, its stated intent is to move applications to leverage the cloud and it plans to transition its desktop products into Forge-based services with thin or thick desktop applications. However, what it has today is a transition to manage, moving from established and popular traditional desktop applications to more cloud integrated solutions. The company’s mechanical division led the way with Autodesk Fusion. In the AEC division, Autodesk Construction Cloud offers a growing array of services from document distribution to digital twins.
With the future vision being on the cloud, it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to invest a lot of in old-technology desktop applications which will eventually be modularised and modernised in the process. And if Autodesk were to invest more heavily, should that be to meet the needs of those complaining or those who are not?
The skill would be to keep application development bubbling along enough to please all users, but allocate more resources and money to the next big thing. The problem comes when you defund development of mature products too far, people start to notice, especially fan boys.
The truth about architecture and design in AEC is that the seam of gold converting 2D AutoCAD users to Revit modellers is a fortune already made and spent. Allocating tens of millions of dollars to create a new tool will not return as much as mining the relatively untapped seam of construction – which is worth way more than the design phase of the process. And here Autodesk is not alone. In the last five years it has been much easier to get venture capital for construction development than architecture. Architects take a long time to buy versus construction firms, and the opportunity to digitise construction is simply vast.
The problem comes when the cost of ownership goes up, but the development drops – when the application is already long in the tooth and there is obviously a reticence to go into the guts of it to make fundamental changes. Yet customers are deeply invested in skills to use it, hardware and the legacy file format. They want to understand the long-term future of their tool, their investment.
To have customers complain publicly once is possibly fixable with the correct level of engagement. But to have it happen twice in two years and to realise that firms which took part in that initial engagement are now feeling substantially more negative about the future of your core product and your brand is a failure which will inevitably lead to more contagion. I do wonder how endemic Autodesk thinks this feeling is.
I have a £300 music application for my Mac which won’t open if it knows I have another version open. Adobe Creative Cloud does something similar. This is how modern software licensing works, and these are low-cost subscription products. It really is head scratching why Autodesk’s software offers scant tools to auto-manage licence allocation.
Design IT directors should not be doing the level of licence management they currently have to do. Some firms have hired people specifically to look after this and it’s based on the fact that if they don’t, and they get picked up by Autodesk non-compliance, there can be big fines. Open Letter writers explained that network licensing was dynamic and self-managing, but felt nothing similar was available today even with ‘Premium’ licences. It’s led to the general feeling amongst the original Open Letter writers that the lack of effective licence management tools is a conscious decision.
‘The future of Revit is Revit’, explained Anagnost around the time of the first open letter. While this may sound odd, it’s a perfectly decent explanation that the brand is important to Autodesk. If the future of Revit is a rewrite, then they would not lose the name. If the plan is to keep the application alive but change the database to a cloud one, it would still keep the name, but it doesn’t answer the question for these users, of what is the future of Revit?
Up until the first Open Letter, it was clear that Autodesk was in no hurry to spend development money on making many changes to Revit. Post engagement with the Open Letter Group there was budget allocated to limited renewed Revit development. At the time Anagnost did warn customers that changes to the code would not be too far reaching. Both Revit 2022 and 2023 certainly offered a broader array of updates than versions prior, but these were defined as ‘low hanging fruit’ by the letter writers.
Next generation BIM
Outside of complaining about the business practices and licencing, a fundamental issue that comes up now is where are the next generation BIM tools? BIM, as we know it, replaced the old 2D drawing workflow with the concept of creating a single 3D model to generate co-ordinated drawings. This utopian vision has not quite worked out the way it was planned. As nobody trusts anyone in this industry, there are multiple BIM models at multiple stages. Firms are drowning in drawings, which they might have edited in AutoCAD, and so break the BIM sync. BIM software has deepened the silos in which data sits in proprietary formats and designing anything big or detailed, or big and detailed, will seriously challenge your hardware.
Mature BIM users, many large and respected Revit customers, are looking ahead and thinking about modern multi-core computers, the cloud, digital fabrication, collaborative working and open ways of working. Modelling buildings in the end just to produce a bunch of PDFs is nonsensical. Many firms are now all about the models. The drawings are contractual obligation or for on-site checking. What would a next generation BIM tool look like?
In software development there seem to be two traditional ways to go about this. The first is to trash the old generation and start from scratch with a clean sheet with none of the historic legacy data overhead. This is risky, as if your previous version has, let’s say over a million users, there’s a considerable risk of losing your market position.
The second, and most common, is to maintain the interface and rewrite core components underneath over time, as seen with Bentley MicroStation and Graphisoft Archicad.
With the advent of the cloud, Autodesk has taken a third way, and it’s bold.
By developing Forge it has componentised core design functionality in the cloud as web service APIs. New applications can be quickly created by ‘wiring up’ a Forge viewing component, with a Forge data exchange component (or many others like BIM 360 Docs). We have seen Autodesk Fusion as being the best example of a singular application developed this way, and the whole Construction Cloud is Forge-based. The outstanding issue is what is going to happen to the old desktop products – AutoCAD, Civil 3D, Revit, Navisworks, 3ds Max? It seems these will be ‘Forgified’ at some point, maybe slowly over time, but the destination is ultimately going to be a combination of thin or thick client with a cloud back end.
Further reading: Two years on from the original “Open Letter to Autodesk” how well do the signatories feel Autodesk has done in meeting their requests?
If you are a software company and you know your software will be rewritten or absorbed into the cloud, the incentive to add deep layers of new capability just isn’t there. This means that product managers are left flighting a rear-guard action of seemingly updating applications to keep paying subscribers happy, while all the cloud engineering work is happening behind the scenes. However, this process is taking years.
There are some signs that Autodesk has come around to thinking to what a Revit replacement would be. It’s widely reported that a team from Spacemaker is involved in defining what that could be, with its interface being an example of the future. I understand there has been a lot of work put into the unified database on Autodesk’s cloud to enable multi-disciplinary models to share the same model space, even if at different levels of detail. This would allow Revit models to co-exist with Fusion fabrication models of facades at 1:1 scale. This harks back to Autodesk projects Quantum and Plasma that seemingly came to nothing.
However, Autodesk execs have also spent some time romancing the new BIM start-ups looking to possibly get involved. This could be just to get them to open-up and show them what’s coming – or perhaps, more worryingly, Autodesk hasn’t been developing anything and it is still working out if it should develop in-house or acquire in the future.
Europe v USA
It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to work out that the majority of the voiced unhappiness is coming from outside the US. Both open letters originated in Europe and in the case of the first open letter, attracted a majority of signatories from outside the US. In my experience, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the same feelings are not felt by our American cousins. There were many words of encouragement from large architectural practices in the US to the vocal architects in Europe and some US firms were active members but preferred to not be named.
There is a cultural difference in how US companies deal with politics, especially in the boardroom. I find that they’re just much less likely to rock the boat. If they have what they deem a good agreement with their software vendor, they are much less likely to want to jeopardise that.
The additional technical aspect to this, is that Europe has stronger regulation for BIM standards and open data, so is more reliant on Revit to play nicely with the output from other BIM tools. In the US, IFC files are almost an alien concept. In a conversation with Revizto, I asked UK and US technical managers about customer attitudes to IFC. In Europe it was heavily requested; in the US ‘there was no IFC problem’, because nobody was asking for it, as the common file format of exchange was RVT.
In the US, Revit deliverables are much more likely to be stipulated in any construction contract. We also must be aware that while Autodesk is a global software firm, I’d suggest it still has a very US-centric view of the world. Many products are trialed first in the US market with US firms and, from my experience, the focus on Construction Cloud, and Autodesk’s fight with Procore in that space, made this US-market focus feel even more so.
For Autodesk, the pressure is building. It transpires that along with the original 25 firms in the Open Letter Group, it was simultaneously dealing with the same issues from others including BIG, Grimshaw, Herzog de Meuron, Heatherwick Studio, ZHA and at least three other global signature architects. Two years of engagement and the firms involved feel that there has been little progress to meet their needs. The Nordic Open Letter escalates this beyond a collection of customers, to architectural associations of countries, which have EU body links, such as the Architects Council of Europe.
As far as Revit goes, the bottom line seems to be, if it is not being redeveloped, exactly what is going to come next and what’s the timeline? If the Spacemaker team really are involved in specifying the next generation tool, then surely speaking to signature architects will define the higher-end capabilities required.
When looking at the business practice issues, Autodesk did not even address any of those the first time around and I can’t see it changing its spots as long as it has a dominant market position and little true competition.
Why write open letters?
Some will ask: why write an Open Letter? Isn’t it all a bit pointless?
Open Letters demand action in a public forum from an addressee. The actual target is the public. This will hopefully mobilise the audience, which the author thinks will feel the same way about the issue or issues being raised. As an example, the first Open Letter connected hundreds of firms around the globe who all agreed with the complaints set out against Autodesk. It even unearthed the fact that there had been other customer collective movements complaining of the lack of Revit development in South Africa and Hong Kong, years before.
It’s hard to connect thousands of firms to address a range of issues with one vendor. Open Letters are not like a class action lawsuit – there’s no financial prize. When it comes to business and the politics of board room decisions, much of this discussion is typically carried on behind closed doors, if at all. This self-compartmentalisation of customers aids vendors and suppresses contagion.
There is the hope that a collective approach will persuade the addressee in power to listen and react. Autodesk did set up meetings and engage with the users, but the outcome seems to have been corrosive, leading to a general understanding that Revit will not be redeveloped. Firms now have deep concerns that, in the medium to long term, Revit will not be fit for purpose. Many of the issues raised were not addressed at all.
Without the first Open Letter, Arcol and Snaptrude, two BIM start-ups, would have found funding harder to find.
Open Letters help VCs and start-ups identify industry pain points and highlight products which are no longer meeting customers’ requirements. Open Letters stimulate competition, in both hopefully a positive and constructive reaction from the firm being complained about, as well as encouraging the new kids on the block.
Without the first Open Letter, Arcol and Snaptrude, two BIM start-ups, would have found funding harder to find. There are at least three other start-ups in stealth mode looking to enter the BIM authoring tool market and a number of investors looking for developers to invest in. More competition is good for any market. Competition means vendors strive for higher achievements, not leave their products to languish.
Of course, startups can also be acquired and if it’s Autodesk buying there is the risk a widely hated business model could come back at you. But if a product has development velocity, then it could still be worth it.