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AutoCAD: march of the clones

If you don't use CAD software, but you know the name of a CAD program, its quite likely to be AutoCAD, which is probably a reasonable definition of the term "industry standard". AutoCAD is the benchmark by which other programs are judged. Many design professionals are proud of the fact that they wouldn't touch it with a barge pole. Its not really cool to be an AutoCAD user.

The fact is, however, that AutoCAD in its various incarnations, is by far the most widely used and popular professional CAD software out there, giving Autodesk, the publisher, a dominant position in the market, reflected in the fact that DWG files, originally just the native AutoCAD file format, have become the standard CAD file format. Since AutoCAD 2000, it has also become a pretty decent program, stable, feature rich and much more user friendly.

For many users and potential users, however, there is a fly, or maybe its something much bigger, in the ointment; cost. AutoCAD is very, very expensive.This might be justifiable if you are able to pass that cost on to clients who are willing to pay significant fees for design and drafting work, but in many cases margins are squeezed and this just isn't possible.

The result has been a growing number of free and relatively cheap programs published by a wide variety of software developers which are in many respects clones or cut-down versions of AutoCAD, able to open and edit files that may have been originally created in AutoCAD or which may be destined for someone using it. These clone programs have been like small satelites orbiting the giant AutoCAD planet, and over the years they have grown more numerous and are now growing in individual size too. The field was dominated for many years by the IntelliCAD consortium, which is basically a club of developers who are responsible for the maintenance and development of the core IntelliCAD code, which they then package as their own brand in markets around the globe. Examples include Autodsys in the US, and ProgeCAD in Europe.

What is striking about this software, and what makes it so attractive to users, are the similarities in basic structure and commands both between the various clones and also with AutoCAD itself. If you learn to use one version, you will be able to draw with another within minutes. This standardisation is obviously of huge benefit to the user, who can acquire transferable skills as well as being able to work on drawings produced on another program.

Its quite likely that Autodesk has been fairly sanguine about this until recently. Most of the companies producing these clones were minnows by comparison, without the resources to match its global reach. In addition, the use of AutoCAD clones just increases the potential user base of the original software.The clones have also tended to be limited in terms of the operating systems they can run on. The free version of ProgeCAD, for example, currently runs on Windows XP and Vista. Additionally, its probably only fair to describe these programs as clones in the sense that they are fairly similar to legacy versions of AutoCAD, in some cases a version current 10 years or more ago.

In 2011, however, Dassault Systemes entered the scene. if the original clones are satelites, this was akin to another planet suddenly appearing in orbit. The resources of this company, itself a subsidiary of the Dassault group, are listed in Wikepedia as being in the region of 3.6 billion Euros. It has been for many years the publisher of Solidworks, a highly respected 3D modelling program mainly used in the mechanical design and engineering fields, with a claimed user base of 2 million. Additionally Dassault Systemes publishes CATIA, a truly high end 3D design program used in the aerospace, automobile and naval architecture fields. In size, its similar to Autodesk, but its giving the clone, DraftSight, away free. It currently runs on most versions of Windows, as well as OS X on the Mac, and several versions of Linux.

The implications of this, in the 2D CAD world at least, are really significant. Dassault claims 2 million downloads since DraftSight was introduced. I remember the early days of Google's purchase of SketchUp, and the speed with which it was adopted in fields where no-one had ever considered using a 3D program before. This was the product of being free software with the resources of an internet giant behind it, plus having great online tutorials which enhanced its intuitive and user-friendly interface, to the point where complete drawing novices have been able to learn how to 3D model, something that was really reserved for dedicated and geeky pro's hitherto.

This is not to say that lots of current AutoCAD users will suddenly switch to DraftSight, and neither is it to claim that DraftSight is the equivalent of a full version of AutoCAD. It doesn't have true 3D capability for a start, and is lacking many of the specialised features present in the versions of AutoCAD which are aimed at particular professional applications. However, there is a potential army of users out there who just need fairly simple CAD drawings; who don't need all the whistles and bells and in fact would just be confused by them. If you think this might include you, you can download a copy of DraftSight here, and you can learn how to use the software through an online course I am publishing, details here.