With the demise of many of Autodesk’s free 3D offerings, it seems they have been following an ingenious strategy all along.
Autodesk is, of course, one of the premier providers of 3D design software through their very full product shelf. However, in past years most of their products have been prohibitively expensive for hobbyists and thus they focused on professional markets. That business model worked very well for many years.
In years past software was distributed solely by physical media, and ran in standalone mode on target machines. Those machines often had to meet minimum hardware levels, as 3D processing often required significant computing and graphics power.
It was a challenging environment for Autodesk - and other software producers - as they had to somehow test their software on countless different hardware and operating system configurations.
However, the high cost of their products justified their efforts to manage this business model. But it didn’t really allow them to do much with hobbyists. They did offer educational discounts for institutions and students, however, who were often able to handle the hardware demands through the institution’s equipment inventory.
But then things changed. The use of cloud-based software became possible, then popular.
Autodesk began a slow move from the troublesome standalone software business model to a far more manageable cloud approach, which had the added advantage of providing a very smooth, regular revenue stream with plenty of motivation for clients to stay long-term with the product. This is the world of their flagship 3D CAD product, Fusion 360.
At first presented as an interesting option, this tool slowly had its pricing altered to strongly encourage standalone users to move to the cloud model.
This is not news, but recent developments caused me to consider what’s transpired over the past few years for hobbyists.
In recent times there have been several low-cost or free 3D products appear, some of which proved popular. But here’s the thing: a number of them were scooped up by Autodesk.
Why did they do so? These folks were definitely not in Autodesk’s market and weren’t about to participate in Autodesk’s business model.
For a time Autodesk continued to operate these tools, such as Tinkercad, as they had been. Some were collected under the “123D” brand, and made them even more popular.
As an entry level 3D tool suite, there were few to rival 123D. For no cost, anyone could get started in 3D. Hobbyists used the tools frequently. Schools developed courses around them. 123D tools were a staple at makerspaces.
This month, however, came a great change. Autodesk shut down 123D and all its apps. A few strays survive in some form, but the free 3D software many made great use of was essentially gone.
Autodesk directed users to either the stray products or to the cloud-based Fusion 360, which offered a free 30 trial, which was of little use to hobbyists, as they could never afford the regular pricing for the comprehensive Fusion 360 subscription.
However, in the fine print Autodesk created something new: a “Startup” license. It’s literally a free license to use Fusion 360 so long as your company’s annual income remains less than USD$100K - and that clearly includes all hobbyists.
Now the strategy becomes clear:
- Create a far more manageable cloud-based offering
- Acquire a selection of popular free tools, gaining access to their user bases
- Improve the free tools somewhat to grow their user bases even more
- Shut down the free tools
- Direct users towards the regular tools, which now happen to be cloud-based
- Easily maintain a new “free” market segment by leveraging the advantages of the cloud platform
- Harvest a portion of the large number of free users who eventually convert into paying customers
So it seems to me that Autodesk’s actions over the past few years in the hobbyist space were precisely to not only encourage use of 3D technology, but also to provide a boost to their new cloud system, now and ongoing in the future.
It’s a good strategy for Autodesk, and actually it’s good for users too, as they gain access to a great 3D tool and the opportunity to use it professionally in the future.