Architectural unrest about Autodesk and its support for the industry’s design businesses is growing. Discontent has been simmering for a decade or more, and has led to calls for EU action.
The recent open letter to Autodesk from 17 named members of a 25-strong group of leading architects (28 July 2020: Design firms demand change at Autodesk) has been supported by more firms. They extend the geographical reach of those prepared to publicly criticise the US AEC software vendor over its support for architectural design businesses – many of them heavily reliant upon Autodesk’s Revit design software. An additional 18 practices now stand alongside the original letter’s signatories, bringing the total to 35. A further 10 practices are supportive, but have not gone public. In total, more than 50 firms have therefore backed the group’s grievances.
The new signatories are: BC Architects and SAOTA (both from South Africa); Cooper Carry, Portman Architects, Idesign-solutions, Studio 3 Architecture, Goody Clancy, SGA, Bohlin, Cywinski, Jackson, and Workshop Collaborative (all from the US), Atelier Tisso (France), CGL, Shepheard Epstein Hunter, and PDPLondon (all from the UK); Vibes (Netherlands); MIZA (Canada); Oslo works (Norway); and Mochly-Eldar Architects (Israel).
It is clear that Iain Godwin has tapped into a growing sense of unease, though, to be fair, rumblings of discontent have been heard many times over the past decade or so from a variety of software commentators and end-users. For example:
- SolidWorks accuses Autodesk of attempting to monopolize use of .dwg as file extension (Ralph Grabowski – WorldCADAccess, December 2009)
- Is the European Commission investigating Autodesk? (Randall Newton – GraphicSpeak, April 2011)
- Autodesk confirms its own unconscionable conduct (Steve Johnson – CAD Nauseum, July 2017)
- Here is why Autodesk’s monopoly over the Global AEC is not good, not even for Autodesk (Zolna Murray – Debunk the BIM, February 2018)
- Avoiding Carillion`s Mistakes of Joining Autodesk’s Monopoly Unnecessarily (John Ford – LinkedIn Pulse, May 2018)
- The state of BIM software and Autodesk (MES – MES blog, July 2018)
- Why Revit is shit (Dion Moult – ThinkMoult, December 2018)
Concerns about some software vendors’ monopolistic positions have also been raised internationally by industry organisations, including the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC).
FIEC position paper
On 24 February 2020, the FIEC published a position paper on the relationship between users and software companies/ editors/ service providers (download). No vendors are named, but, from the similarity of the claims, Autodesk is clearly one of the software providers that FIEC is sufficiently concerned about to urge the European Commission to review competition and data management regulations. Its paper discusses challenges and makes recommendations under four headings:
- The dominant position of a few software companies/editors/providers raises major concerns. – The FIEC urges the European Commission to target competition issues relating to software user contracts
- The non-EU origin of these suppliers and their infrastructure is exacerbating the lack of autonomy in software capability in the EU. – The FIEC says EU software users should be allowed to decide where their data is stored (“EU companies should be able to have their data hosted on EU territory, by EU servers/companies, under EU legislation”), calls for the creation of a secure European Cloud, and says software services “should be required to meet EU standards for interoperability and open access”.
- Contracting authorities must remain software-neutral and promote open standards. – The FIEC calls for enforcement of EU public procurement rules, and urges promotion of open standards for data, protocols and file formats in public procurement.
- Rules need to be established for multiple-user-access platforms such as BIM models. – Similarly, the FIEC urges EU measures aimed at protecting the data owner while ensuring appropriate data access rights for other users.
Autodesk not alone in hosting, US dominance, interoperability issues
Some of these issues are already familiar. Where project data is hosted has been a concern ever since Software-as-a-Service applications began to be deployed in the 1990s, and as use of construction collaboration platforms expanded in the early 2000s, most leading vendors have responded by creating localised hosting centres to serve different operational regions. Hosting project data in the United States, for example, has been resisted by most clients based in Europe and other parts of the world (eg: the Middle East, southeast Asia, etc; read EE August 2014 post No SaaS ‘Safe Harbor’).
Concentration of large portions of the construction software industry through merger and acquisition activity has resulted in an increasingly dominant position for US software giants. By gobbling up strong players in Europe, Australasia and elsewhere, Autodesk, Bentley, Oracle and Trimble have assembled strong AEC software portfolios, while some of the more generic US software providers such as Microsoft and IBM have also developed applications, services and relationships that give them an increasingly strong foothold in the AEC space.
And software interoperability has been a perennial issue that EE has covered since it started in 2005 (eg: New ROI: Return on Interoperability, September 2005). BuildingSmart (formerly the International Alliance for Interoperability) started out as an Autodesk initiative in the mid-1990s, but, over 25 years later, global shifts towards open standards are still proceeding almost glacially slowly, with Autodesk’s leading BIM authoring product “widely ridiculed” for its IFC import/export capabilities.
Autodesk responds on key themes
Autodesk’s initial response (see update to earlier EE post) to the Godwin group’s open letter did not mention interoperability at all. However, a follow-up blog post by Amy Bunzsel published today (31 July 2020) addresses the main themes, and on openness and interoperability says: “We continue to invest in supporting IFC and based on customer feedback we’ve recently increased development for new industry requirements, focusing on IFCv4 certification.”
“Looking to the future, we believe that ways of working will evolve, from the direct modeling of today to outcome-based design driven by analysis…, to the convergence of manufacturing and construction, and that data needs to be unlocked from native formats and flow more readily throughout Autodesk and non-Autodesk products.”
No more software silos
Jozef Dobos is CEO and founder of London, UK-based technology vendor, 3DRepo (which has been a supporter of Open BIM since 2017), and recently argued The case for fair competition in software use, in a BIM+ article. He writes:
“All the issues raised by the FIEC must be addressed to enable the genuine digitisation of the construction industry.
3D Repo was created to enable the construction industry to work better together and to create better buildings. This is why projects like the AEC Delta Mobility [open-source] initiative in collaboration with BuroHappold Engineering and Speckle Systems are so important, creating a new standard for designers, integrators and fabricators to improve the flow of data.
The current method of sharing information as files of entire 3D models can hinder collaboration. Tracking changes can also be problematic and inefficient for design communication. AEC Delta Mobility breaks down the file barriers to enable small design changes, known as ‘Deltas’, to be shared faster, more openly and more efficiently.
This is how the software industry should be working with the construction industry. Real solutions that involve working with customers and providing them with tools they will not want to walk away from, based on commercial terms that actually promote the collaborative behaviours we want to see, not divide us into software silos.”