On Dec 1, 2003, at Autodesk University, the press got its first look at AutoCAD 2005. It came with a bit of a boast from John Sanders, Executive VP of Design Solutions Division, who noted that for the first time Autodesk knows what the next few versions of AutoCAD (those after 2005) will look like. Interestingly, he explained that between the two major releases (with names) are two "in-between" releases termed "Subscription Editions" or SEs. That reminded me vaguely of MicroStation SE [special edition] which had only a lukewarm reception as I recall. The real reason for these, I decided back in December, was to help justify the money subscribers are paying, as the promised extensions, which were to be delivered now and again between releases, have slowed to a trickle of late.
So, I was sort of surprised to receive an e-mail from Autodesk last week saying the SEs were out of the picture. Instead, subscribers will be able to download extensions between releases "as they become available." So, the real change now is simply that Autodesk is promising a full release each year. That, as others have suggested, will help even out cashflow for the company. While it helps users plan ahead, I suspect it's really about company finances. I can't think of another company that promises an annual release, except maybe Norton, with its tools and anti-virus software.
The presentation on AutoCAD 2005 was short, with just a few demos, but the clear focus was on drafting, publishing, and workflow. These are three of five areas into which the AutoCAD team divides its long term enhancement strategy. The other two are presentation and customization, which may be tackled in releases beyond 2005. There are basically three new, big goodies in the box, that address these three topics.
One is a drawing set manager. The idea is to provide a tool that allows end users to manage the many drawings that make up a drawing set (think of all the plans for a house or a Wal-Mart). The application, while slick, was in some ways reminiscent of a baby document management system. Individual files are organized, named, put in order, etc. Most impressive, relations between individual "pages" are maintained. Rename the page with the call out of the complex doors, it updates everywhere throughout the drawing set. Click on a link for a drawing in the "Table of Contents" and it opens (and the end user need not know its "real" location). I specifically asked about the API to this functionality (there's a full one) and if the industry groups might customize this further (they were looking at it, was the reply). My thought was that this functionality might enhance or replace tools to chop a large mapping project into a mapbook, for example.
The second goodie is tied into the first, and provides "enhanced production of design elements." Basically, that means that formatting chores now done by hand will be automated. For example, AutoCAD will create tables (and even put data pasted in from Excel into them). Tables in AutoCAD behave very much like those in Excel - you can move from cell to cell, copy and paste data, merge cells, etc. Another example illustrated how AutoCAD will support "fields" like those in Word where you can automatically fill in the date or the author's name. Such fields will help populate data for the drawing set pages. There are also enhanced tools for plotting sheet sets to paper or electronic form. And, this was a nice change: plotting could happen in the background while editing or other drawings continued in parallel.
The final goodie is an enhanced DWF reader, called DWF Composer. The new product ($99 introductory expected "for a while" until it rises to $199) will allow redlining of DWFs. These are then republished out as DWF, and can be read into AutoCAD 2005. That software is smart enough to display the redlines over the original file, allow for notes and updates based on the Composer users comments, and, that's right, republish yet another DWF. I suppose, just like Word's "track changes" features, it takes some getting used to, but it sounded fairly complex.
We were assured that this product won't immediately replace the current free ExpressViewer that reads DWF or the current non-free Volo View that reads DWGs. That said, I think it will certainly cause confusion, just by being a third "viewer." I also suggest the name Composer could be misleading since that term implies creation (think Mozart). I'm not sure this product can create anything on its own, but rather only redline something it reads in. Autodesk is quite pleased with its recent DWF campaigns citing the statistic that 35% of users are now publishing to DWF.
One big bit of news - there are no changes to the DWG format at 2005, so files will be backward compatible to AutoCAD 2004. Autodesk is working to create tools to ensure that customizations made to 2004 will be seamlessly migrated to the new release.
While these tools were cool, and are certainly valuable, my first thought was: "these must be things that third party developers offer." CAD guru Ralph Grabowski, who sat next to me during the briefing (read his take here) confirmed my suspicion. I suppose one way to look at what Autodesk might add next is to look at what third party developers are still in business.