Cloud benefits – collaboration, with Autodesk’s Tal Weiss

In May 2010 I took part in a phone conference with several Autodesk people about the Cloud. Part of that discussion was in the form of an interview, which I will publish in later posts. Another part was in the form of a verbal presentation from Autodesk’s Tal Weiss, concentrating on what was then Project Butterfly, Autodesk’s then Labs-based Cloudy CAD offering. This product had been called Visual Tao and was later renamed again to AutoCAD WS. As this presentation was largely based on the benefits of the Cloud for CAD collaboration, I think it is worthwhile reproducing it here. Obviously, it represents Tal’s view rather than my own.

First, a little background. Project Butterfly started with an Autodesk acquisition in November 2009 of a company called Visual Tao, based in Tel Aviv, Israel. This is now an Autodesk development office led by Tal Weiss, former CEO and co-founder of Visual Tao. Here is what Tal had to say:

Butterfly is a web application to enable users to edit, share and collaborate on AutoCAD drawings, on line using any web browser. One way to describe it in just a single sentence is, “Google Docs to AutoCAD”, meaning a web application to which you can upload your desktop content to then be immediately able to view and to edit that content using just your web browser with no desktop software necessary, and to share that content very easily with other users without them having to have any kind of software to download and install on the local machine.

The way that we look at it is that Butterfly extends AutoCAD to the web, meaning turning AutoCAD from a best-in-breed software experience for drawing, drafting and modelling on the desktop and extending that over to the web; putting the power of the web at the hands of our AutoCAD and even non-AutoCAD users. That kind of signature was the reasoning behind doing that acquisition [of Visual Tao]; really creating a strong web component from AutoCAD, really enjoying the synergy that both companies could have by incorporating that hopefully in the future to one coherent offering.

The main capability of Butterfly: to allow users to be able to upload content and to be able to edit it on-line. Butterfly today offers a fairly rich set of functionality in terms of what you can do, and we’re constantly adding more tools and capabilities. When we designed this interface, we wanted to make it on the one hand familiar to our existing AutoCAD users, but on the other hand familiar to people who are not AutoCAD users. We’ve seen really good success with that; people are very easily able to upload content and immediately be able to interact with it and manipulate it, edit and comment on content using just a web browser. So that’s probably first of all the one key feature.

Another thing Butterfly needs to do is to allow you to very easily manage and browse through your on-line content. You upload drawings and Butterfly allows you to manage folders in a structure, and to move files around and navigate through your content very easily and to search for your content. We’re making it dead simple for you to manage your AutoCAD drawings on line.

Once the content is on line, it becomes very easy to share that content with other users. With one click, you can take a drawing, or a group of drawings, or an entire folder, and share it with another user. You give them access in a way that is very familiar with Google Docs. You’re not sending them emails with file attachments that they then have to download to the local computers and they need to have the right software for them to be able to open it. What you’re giving them is a link which you can send via email or even post on the Internet, and once they click it those users are able to open that drawing in a web browser and to be able to view and edit it with very good fidelity without having to have any sort of software or files stored on their machines.

There are also a couple of cool things you can do here when you share content, we give you a lot of control over the way you share it. You might want to share your content with someone but without allowing them to edit it. If you’re sending content out to a client you might want them to be able to review the drawings and just do simple markups over them. Or you might not want the user you’re sharing the content with to be able to download it to their machine.

You can do all of that very, very easily. Because you’re sharing the same content with multiple people, you’re not duplicating it in the way you would if you were to send drawings via email, where every time you send out an attachment you’re creating a duplicate where it’s very hard for you to manage which version of the content your consumers are using, especially down the line. This method of sharing on line using just one centralised copy on the web provides you with the ability to have one single point of view for all your design consumers to be able to view, edit and interact with that content. So that’s another exciting feature that you get by using Butterfly for managing and sharing your drawings on line.

Another nice thing about security is that you can actually unshared content. So if today you’re sending out files to users you’re never really able to reclaim that content back; once you’ve sent it out you’ve basically lost control of it. People can do whatever they want with your design and you’re not able to control it. What you can do here [with Butterfly], you have a lot of control over the content because you’re not actually giving them a copy of it, just giving them access to it. You can at any point in time remove access to that content or revoke permission to download and edit once a specific phase of the design process, just leaving up there the content for others for documentation. So there’s a lot of things you can do with the web which are very hard to do when using a file or email-based approach.

One of the things we set out to do when we built this product was provide very strong collaborative capabilities. We’ve seen these for asynchronous collaboration where it’s dead simple for me to just share a file with somebody, give them a link to that drawing and permit them to view and edit it. We also wanted to bake into the system a strong real-time component, especially with the web becoming more and more real-time, and we did it. So it’s very easy for users who are using Butterfly to go into meeting mode with another person, in which they can really laser [focus] in and work on specific components and work and exchange ideas and communicate over design very easily. We provide them with a lot of tools to do so, such as synchronised viewports, shared cursors, enabling users to really co-edit and view drawings together at the same time. So you can have changes propagated between two users as they happen.

For example, if I’m an architect and I want to walk a client through a design, I can just send him out a link to click, and he’s in the drawing with me, we can discuss the drawing together, I can show him various alternatives, things I’d like to do and I can actually control what that other user can do with the drawing. It might make sense for me to only provide that user with viewing and mark-up capabilities and just walk him through that design. Or if I’m working with an environment engineer working on the West coast and another engineer on the East coast and I want them to exchange ideas on the specifics of design we might want both of them to be able to move, edit and manipulate drawings together, and this enables our customers to not only collaborate asynchronously, but also in real time without having to set up any sort of dedicated web conferencing solution, which as we see a lot of the time is hard to set up and get it to work, and those tools which are not really design-dedicated.

So we really want to build a design-dedicated tool for enabling real-time collaboration between users over designs. That’s another key feature that the system today provides users with.

When we set out with Visual Tao and later on Butterfly, we really wanted to build a system that was open and mashable from the ground up. We architected the system and we built it that way, and we launched that on Autodesk Labs. We wanted to be able to test the feature aspect of the system with our users with something that’s meaningful and not just an exercise in technology.

One of the things that’s good about having a project out in Labs is that you get a lot of input and a lot of feedback from the community; a lot of engagement. We’ll be passing the 100,000 visitor mark this month* and we’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails from users who talk about different things we’re doing with the app, features that are missing. We’ll actually be seeing probably over 27,000 AutoCAD files and drawings already uploaded to Butterfly* by our users. One of the prime requests we have is they wanted the ability to view and share, to collaborate on their drawings in a real-world context.

That’s something we really took to heart and that might mean overlaying your drawing over imagery, or aerial image, or it might mean positioning your content over a third-party service such as Google Maps. So we decided we were going to do that and build that feature out for our users and we provided support for over 30 popular image formats for people to overlay on their designs, and on the other hand we connected our system to Google maps, enabling users to position their drawing over a map and view and edit it in that real-world context in order to be able to share that with other users. We put it out on Labs and we immediately saw a lot of activity revolving around that feature. For probably the first 3 or 4 weeks after putting it out we have seen over 1,000 drawings overlaid over Google Maps and it’s very satisfying for us to be able to get requests from users regarding features that they like and being able to work on that very quickly and put it in their hands and see them using it and see them deriving value out of that.

I think probably over the course of the four months since the service has been up, we’ve actually updated it six times. Each time adding more features, more functionality, all based on user and community requests. That’s something that is very satisfying for us, to be able to get that feedback from the community and to be able to deliver on that.

A strong feature that the web provides is the ability to provide our users with infinite storage space. Whenever you upload a new file version to Butterfly, whenever you send out a drawing to review, whenever you meet on a drawing and co-edit it with a colleague or review it, Butterfly stores all that information and automatically places it on a design line, enabling you with just a couple of clicks to immediately go back to a previous versions, reviews, meetings, without having to archive or manage all that data yourself.

So if you’re working on a design and you need to incorporate some changes based on comments you got from a design review which happened 3 or 4 weeks ago, there’s no need for you to go back to an email or a file to look for those spots, you can with just one click go back to Butterfly and see all the changes and comments that were made during that meeting or review session automatically, and not only view it but download it to your machine, take it back to AutoCAD and work on the file some more, then re-upload it and have that design timeline automatically updated and all of the users sharing that file automatically getting access to the latest version. That’s another strong and interesting feature that Butterfly provides our users with today and which we’ve seen a lot of excitement about.

* Remember, this was back in May 2010, about 4 months after Autodesk Labs launched Project Butterfly.

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