Call it the consumerization of CAD, or maybe it's just Apple's dominating influence on how we think of or buy everything from software to music. Whatever you want to call it, the Apple-driven concept of an online App store is easing its way into the world of design tools, and engineers are bound to profit.
Autodesk took the biggest step toward its interpretation of an online app store with its recent announcement of a new capability in AutoCAD 2012 that lets users directly download and purchase companion apps from its partners.
With AutoCAD 2012's new Apps tab, users can browse and purchase more than 100 apps that extend the functionality of the core 2D CAD tool directly from within the software. The new Apps tab, currently only available in AutoCAD 2012 (but might we assume it could find its way into the Inventor 3D CAD package?), is found on the AutoCAD Exchange landing page that appears when AutoCAD 2012 is launched. The apps and other content served up via the Apps tab are either free or available for a small fee (payment is handled through PayPal). They are primarily created by members of the Autodesk Developer Network, although all AutoCAD 2012 users are encouraged to submit apps or content.
There is a quality-control process so users can be assured of some level of security, and the community will also serve as a filter with the five-star rating system, which allows users to rate apps just as they would on iTunes, Facebook, or any social network.
Autodesk laid the groundwork for these new companion apps over the last few years by developing rich APIs for AutoCAD that enable third-party developers to introduce complementary functionality. As a result, there is a wide variety of offerings, from simple scripts to more complex learning tools and translators, and even some basic productivity tools.
The Apps tab does a couple of things for Autodesk and the AutoCAD community. It gives Autodesk a way to centralize the distribution of these companion apps while giving developers a chance to get their ideas in front of a built-in audience (and maybe even make money in the process). For AutoCAD users, it delivers an increasingly familiar and easy way to get cheap and rich extended functionality for the tool without any real effort.
Autodesk execs say the timing is right to dip their toes into this new delivery paradigm, given the training users have had with Apple iTunes and the App Store and with Google Android Marketplace. "The conditioning of our users through their use of smartphones and tablets are key enablers to making our Apps B2B marketplace possible," says Jim Quanci, director of the Autodesk Developer Network, in an interview.
Other design tool vendors seem to be dipping their toes into the notion of apps and an online download experience. PTC's recent launch of Creo 1.0, its next-generation CAD tool, ushers in the concept of AnyRole Apps. While this isn't an online app store, per se, it introduces the idea of parceling up complex functionality into more accessible, role-based chunks as opposed to throwing the entire kitchen sink into one monolithic application. And who knows: Delivering these role-based apps via some type of online store might not be such a stretch in the days to come.
Altium, a maker of EDA software, recently launched its AltiumLive community, which in addition to social media-type functionality, also serves as a way to deliver online updates to the software as opposed to traditional licensing. Again, while not directly mirroring the app store concept, it does inch closer to the idea of making highly specialized, sophisticated design software easily available to customers in more of a consumer-oriented fashion.
Autodesk's Quanci says that, while users are well conditioned in how to use a B2C app store, there are differences with B2B, and Autodesk plans to learn from this experience in AutoCAD before moving on to offer an Apps tabs and a marketplace for any of its other offerings.
"AutoCAD has the largest software ecosystem in the design software world, so it was the logical place to start. We expect to learn a lot about how to manage a B2B app store over the next several months, which will be a foundation for us to build upon."