Rumours, Bargains and Über-Apps

With some interest I have been following the rumours and denials about Autodesk‘s alleged killing of MAX, Motionbuilder, XSI and some other products as well as the associated shuffling around of the development teams and kicking out some pople. Now why should I care, as I’m actually not using any of their products currently? It offers some interesting insights in how big companies tick and how software development can hit a wall at some point, requiring some drastic steps to be taken.

First, the obvious. Did it ever really make sense for them to have 3 rather major 3D animation and content creation packages plus a ton of auxiliary apps around them? Probably not. Such deals are about two things: getting access to technologies (and intellectual property associated with them) and controlling markets to a degree. They jumped the chance when Alias was in shambles and got Maya on top of it and the same happened again when Avid rid themselves of XSI. Along with the programs they acquired a pretty huge user base, but also had to continue creating new versions, market them and all that stuff that comes with it. That is to say they also inherited a lot of work and associated cost in money and resources. For a while there that may have worked, but inevitably, the company was only left with two choices: Allow the apps to grow at the cost of diverging ever further from one another or take a whollistic approach and try to unify stuff at the cost of (seemingly) minimal evolution in the apps. Depending on who you talk to, either one could be true. Still, in the end, everything worked as long as the users were loyal and patient enough. That, however, has changed, bringing us to the second point.

Does Autodesk feel the heat? You can bet on it! Their own undecidedness on what to do with their apps plus their ever rising prices have made more users look for alternatives than they probably would have liked. You know, if you don’t know what to do yourself, you can’t blame your users from getting insecure and losing confidence. Combine that with new technologies popping up everywhere and apps like modo or Cinema 4D solidifying and expanding their user base and offering a better price/ value ratio for the user, that should give them some food for thought.

As a third point, of course Autodesk‘s apps are bloated. No point in making any pretence about it. Just like Adobe programs they are crammed to the brim with legacy features because – well – there could still be 2 users on this planet that want to open 10 year old files or can’t adpat to new workflows and you don’t want to piss them off. To that you can easily add a gigazillion plug-ins and extensions they have gobbled up over the years that fill your menus and toolbars in many of their programs. You just can’t help but feel that all that excess baggage prevents the apps from moving or growing into different directions and makes them slow. Trying to untangle the mess they made for thmeselves would be more complicated than just starting off fresh. A clear indication of that are Autodesk‘s efforts with things like project XBR to renovate MAX, but it would seem it just doesn’t come together – you can’t graft the new stuff onto the old APIs.

Fourth, and that’s a pretty obvious point, with cloud and web based stuff looming everywhere, companies must be wary to not fall off the cart and offer something that keeps their users tied to them. Now Autodesk make a ton more money with their CAD, manufacturing and design tools and personally I see much more protential there, but well, you gotta be a trend whore one way or the other and you can’t be if your infrastructure ain’t up to it. Neither do the programs offer any such features like running complex simulations over a distributed network (one of the reasons why they are probably so interested in Naiad and bought it), which by all means could be their server form on a pay per use or subscription basis, nor do they actually have such a server infrastructure in place yet. So they need to agressively tackle both and it inevitably means they will have to reinvent their tools.

Does that mean they will kill any of their existing products soon? I don’t think so. It would be foolish as long as the user basis is healthy and their tools are used that widely. Even if they may prefer for people to use Maya for games creation instead of MAX, just saying so doesn’t make it happen. They need to give their customers a chance to transition their pipelines and that by itself is a slow process – nobody would switch in the middle a production and even for games that means about 2 years on average. The more specialized a facility is and the more it uses custom in-house plug-ins and tools, the longer that will be. Same of course the other way around – for a while longer you will have to keep developing XSI, be it just to keep things running on Windows 8 or whatever is yet to come and equally you couldn’t pull the plug on Maya. Of course we don’t know anything about what goes on behind the scenes – they could come out with their unified über-app tomorrow, but I think there’s still quite a bit of time before that happens. Having experienced the endless delays before the first version of modo came out, also having keenly observed NewTek‘s failed Lightwave CORE project and being involved with software development on different levels I know that this stuff doesn’t fall out of the sky even if your company is big and your bank acount filled.

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