Over recent weeks there has been a furore surrounding Autodesk and their flagship product, Revit. An open letter to Autodesk called into question Revit’s value given escalating licencing costs with stagnant product development. Some long-term customers have even begun considering abandoning Revit altogether and switching to rival software. So how has all of this come about and what’s to take away from the situation? This article offers an alternative view on the matter, suggesting a whole rethink of our relationship with Revit altogether.
The Autodesk open letter
For years, Architects have complained about Revit’s lack of development and rising costs. However, much of this fell on deaf ears. But last month, something very unusual happened. Seventeen firms, including Zaha Hadid Architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and Grimshaw, published an open letter demanding better value.1 It was not unusual in the sense that someone wrote an open letter – this has happened in the past. It was unusual in the sense that it received the attention of Autodesk’s CEO.
A few days after the open letter was published, Autodesk’s Senior Vice President, Amy Bunszel, responded.2 And this is where things start to unravel for Autodesk. Autodesk predictably went into PR mode and tried to minimise damage. Bunszel claimed, “while we don’t agree with everything in the letter, we are committed to listening.” This comment served only to fuel the fire, and social media went into overdrive. For some, it was not about cost and performance. Instead, it was about Autodesk’s hollow promises of listening to customers when history has repeatedly demonstrated that this is not their modus operandi.
With anger growing, Autodesk’s CEO Andrew Anagnost finally responded, some three weeks later.3 The post acknowledges the fact that Revit’s architecture functionality didn’t progress as quickly as it should, but he disputed many other points in the original open letter. One of which is that Autodesk, are working on the ‘next-generation platform for AEC’, a subject which we’ll return to later.
At the same time, while all of this was happening, Autodesk released their annual report.4 This report was fascinating reading. As a publicly listed company, Autodesk must disclose detailed financial and operating information – possibly the only opportunity for outsiders to get an accurate view of the facts, free from any PR spin. Some of the key points from the report include US$1.4b in revenue – 30% derived from AutoCAD, while 35% from the AEC collection (which includes Revit). The biggest competitor is considered Adobe, while Andrew Anagnost’s total package is US$11.5m. Stock price increased by 34% in fiscal 2020, 70% over the last two fiscal years and 142% over the last three fiscal years. With record profits and unhappy customers, what is one to make of all of this?
There has been much discussion about what Autodesk’s monopoly means to the AEC industry. At this point in the debate, many will simply say, if you’re not happy with Revit, use another software. But as Daniel Davis describes:
“practices are so invested in Revit that it can be hard to escape. Companies didn’t just buy a Revit license— they trained staff to use Revit, developed Revit content, and conditioned clients to expect Revit deliverables. And in doing so, they are at the mercy of Autodesk’s next action or inaction, as it were.”5
Of course, architects only have themselves to blame for this. For years, BIM managers have championed Autodesk’s closed ecosystem to minimise IT management and eliminate perceived interoperability issues. In many ways, what we are witnessing in the industry is the psychological condition known as ‘Stockholm syndrome’, where kidnapping or hostage victims have feelings of trust or affection towards their captor. We know monopolies are bad for the consumer, but yet we remain inactive – afraid to change software and afraid to retrain staff.
The innovator’s dilemma
In our previous article, ‘Understanding innovation‘, we discussed the ‘innovator’s dilemma’, as championed by Clayton Christensen.6 Christensen’s research demonstrates that by listening to customers and giving those customers what they want, has repeatedly sowed the seeds of every successful company’s ultimate demise. This demise is because products frequently overshoot what the market demands, and once a product is ‘good enough’, customers will switch to the cheaper or more convenient option.
The impact of sustaining and disruptive technological change7
If you consider customer segmentation according to Everett Rogers’ classic bell curve, the signatories of the open letter are arguably early adopters/early majority. And as Christensen and Raynor describes8, customers in the highest or most demanding tiers may never be satisfied with the best that is available. These customers are defined as those who are willing to pay for increases on some dimension of performance. Conversely, those in the lowest or least demanding tiers can be satisfied with very little. These customers are those who would rather make a different trade-off, accepting less performance in exchange for lower prices.
Everett Rogers’ classic bell curve of five distinct customer segments—innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards
The real question we should be asking is, “is Revit meeting market demands relative to their target market?” While Autodesk loves showcasing generative design, 3D printed bridges, and other bleeding-edge technology, their target customer segmentation is non-consumption – those who aren’t even using Revit. In this context, there is some logic to Autodesk not investing in developing Revit. By listening too heavily to the demands for improved functionality, there is a strong possibility that Autodesk will overshoot market demands.
Given the content of the open letter to Autodesk, I appreciate the irony in suggesting that Revit may be overshooting market demands. But consider this, if architects really wanted the Rolls Royce of BIM, why aren’t they using Dassault Systèmes Catia? Catia is infinitely more powerfully than any of Autodesk’s software. So why don’t more architects use it? Quite simply because it is expensive, prohibitively more expensive. Dassault Systèmes doesn’t publish the price of Catia, but as the saying goes, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. Catia has massively overshot what the architectural market demands and so architects have looked elsewhere for a more affordable product in Revit that is ‘good enough’ for its needs.
It is a bitter pill to swallow for Revit users to claim that Revit shouldn’t be further developed for fear of over-shooting market demands. I too would love to see improved functionality in Revit as it would make my day-to-day activities significantly easier. But I also acknowledge that Revit is not the future and that R&D investment would be better spent elsewhere.
Jobs to be done
Clayton Christensen argues that people ‘hire’ products on a ‘jobs to be done’ basis.9 When customers become aware of a job that they need to get done in their lives, they look around for a product or service that they can ‘hire’ to get the job done. Theodore Levitt famously said, people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill; they want a quarter-inch hole.10
When Revit was introduced some 20 years ago, the job to be done was, “how can I efficiently document my project?” Revit was remarkably successful because it solved this job to be done. It provided three main benefits which AutoCAD couldn’t:
- Consistency. Revit demonstrated it was possible to have plans and sections in sync, thereby ensuring more consistent and accurate documentation;
- Collaboration. Revit allowed multiple users to edit the same file; and,
- Coordination. Revit allowed users to create 3D elements from 2D views to understand designs better.
Of course, there were many other benefits afforded by Revit, but these were the most compelling. But like the Shavasana pose in yoga, many quickly realised that it is easy to do, hard to master. To create basic designs was easy, very easy. But it took years to become an expert and understand the ins and outs. Only a seasoned user, for example, will know that to create a ramp, you should use a sloped floor and not the actual ramp tool. And there are hundreds of scenarios like this one.
Next-generation AEC platform
But Revit is now 20 years old and the ‘job to be done’ is changing. It is no longer about documentation a project, but about many different jobs:
- Analysing contextual data;
- Performing basic environmental analyses;
- Harvesting and reusing design intelligence; and
- Developing assets for fabrication.
Revit is incredibly poor at all of these jobs to be done. However, that doesn’t stop it from trying. But at some point, the swiss army knife approach of trying to get Revit to do everything will no longer work. Users will begin to demand dedicated tools for each of the jobs to be done. Of course, this concept is not new.
A diagrammatic workflow of Project Quantum, Autodesk University 2016
In late 2016, Autodesk announced Project Quantum, possibly one of the most conceptually exciting approaches to creating an AEC software ecosystem. Project Quantum was later was renamed Project Plasma, but the fact is that it’s been four years and Autodesk have been very tightlipped about its development.11 Many, including myself, are hopeful that Project Plasma is followed through to fruition. But Autodesk has a habit of killing off products faster than Game of Thrones kills off characters.
The answer to the wrong question
Revit was designed to improve how architects and engineers document buildings. The issue, however, is that it was the answer to the wrong question. The question should never have been, “how can we document a project better?” Instead, it should have been, “how can we design and construct buildings better?” When all you’ve had is AutoCAD, Revit was a godsend. But we must acknowledge that Revit and BIM are merely digitalising old ways of working. It is a sustaining technology that is slowly become less relevant.
It is anyone’s guess if Project Plasma will see the light of day. One would think with US$1.4b in revenue, Autodesk would have a healthy R&D budget to make this happen. But regardless of Autodesk’s priorities, there are numerous startups out there working on solving how to design and construct better buildings, including our MetricMonkey software. Individually these may not amount to the ‘Revit killer’, but collectively they might. A highly specialised network of tools will always perform better than the swiss army knife.
What lies ahead for Revit is uncertain. AutoCAD is now over 40 years old and still going strong, so it would be fair to say Revit will be around for some time yet. But my prediction is that when a suitable alternative(s) does come along, which significantly improves the job to be done and meets market demands, change will be swift. Disruption is a process, not an event. And this process is already well underway.
It was refreshing to see organisations snap out of what we’ve coined our Stockholm syndrome. In many ways, however, the open letter to Autodesk is all bark with no bite. Until customers start voting with their feet, there is little motivation for Autodesk to change.
It will be interesting to see if debate around cost, licencing and performance will prevail, or if there will be a shift in interest towards how and where Autodesk’s profits are invested into the so-called next-gen platform. I could forgive many of Autodesk’s misgivings if we knew there was a better solution just around the corner. But with little information publicly available, all one sees is rising licencing costs, stagnate development and marketing propaganda.
In any case, what has become clear from the Autodesk open letter saga, is that Architecture is no longer just about architecture. Slowly and surely, architecture and software are converging, and the industry as a whole must take agency in its development. Ignore it at your peril.
1 AEC Magazine. (25 July 2020). Autodesk AEC customers demand better value. AEC Magazine.
2 Bunszel, A. (31 July 2020). A Reply To Our Customers’ Open Letter On Autodesk Revit. Autodesk.
3 Anagnost, A. (17 Aug 2020). Autodesk and the Architecture Industry. Autodesk.
4 Autodesk. (2020). Annual Report.
5 Davis, D. (27 Aug 2020). Architects Versus Autodesk. In Architect Magazine.
6 Wintour, P. (27 Nov 2019). Understanding Innovation. Parametric Monkey.
7 Doctored image from Christensen, C. (2016). The innovator’s dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p.XX.
8 Christensen, C & Raynor, M. (2003). The innovator’s solution. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p33.
9 Christensen, C & Raynor, M. (2003). The innovator’s solution. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p75.
10 Levitt, T. in Christensen, C & Raynor, M. (2003). The innovator’s solution. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, p99.
11 AEC Magazine. (3 June 2019). What comes after Revit? Autodesk aims to reinvent collaborative BIM. AEC Magazine.