Autodesk Seek gets a new look and more content

Autodesk has not yet abandoned their web-based services endeavours in spite of a wilting construction industry and sinking global economy. Just prior to Autodesk University 2008 their Seek service received a significant makeover. Now this week it was announced BIMWorld has been acquired by Autodesk so that its BIMLibrary catalogue can be folded into Seek's. These events all sound good on paper, but how do they stack up, and more importantly is this a step forward for the Seek service?

The new user interface

The old white on black style of Seek has disappeared in favour of pastels on white. Overall this is a welcome change, but more importantly the overall appearance has been tidied up, with more attention paid to the rendering of onscreen elements. The result still feels very database-driven, but compared to the previous interface it does have a better flow and a less haphazard look. The Javascript-based Yahoo! User Interface library has been used to good effect and overall it feels very snappy. Unfortunately under this new coat of paint some things have not changed, for example the URIs for each product are shockingly bad. The option to email a link of the product has improved, but most people are used to simply copying and pasting URLs from the browser. If Autodesk expect others to link to content they need to resolve this problem. Until then it is very difficult for people to collaborate using Seek as a point of reference.

It is good to see that on some 3D models the option to preview the model before downloading is available. Whether this option appears seems to depended on the supplier, but when it was present the result worked quite well. On the Mac with Safari the preview was limited to Project Freewheel's static 3D rendering of model, but apparently an interactive 3D viewer is available for Windows users. Even with this limitation the preview provided by Freewheel is a welcome addition, and for most tasks provides all the validation a user may require.

Beyond these specific improvements the overall interface has not fundamentally changed. This is not bad, you cannot help but feel one or two UI iterations centered around navigation and filtering could lead to something really innovative. This could be helped if 2009 Autodesk exposed Seek's index as a series of web services. Third parties would then be free to develop more varied interfaces and "mash-up" the data with external services.

The BIMWorld purchase

Whenever one large company buys a smaller one it is always fun to watch. Autodesk's acquisition of BIMWorld appears to be centered around two assets; the content catalogue and its supporting community. Whilst the catalogue and its supporting content should be relatively easy to integrate with Seek, preserving the community may prove more of a challenge. The motivation behind "buying" a community is simple, on the Internet page views are the linga franca of advertising dollars. The more users Seek can claim, the more valuable it becomes to advertisers, suppliers and potential users.

The challenge facing this forthcoming community migration is that BIMWorld has significant functionality Seek currently lacks, for example membership, ratings and the ability to upload new content. Such deficiencies may prove too much for many BIMWorld users to stomach. However it may turn out this "missing" functionality is added to Seek sometime in 2009. The inability to submit or comment on content handicaps the fledgling service, so you would hope planning and implementation of such features was underway prior to the acquisition.

Conclusion: It is getting there slowly

Seek is demonstrating slow but steady improvement on both the interface and content fronts. The purchase of BIMWorld illustrates that Autodesk are serious about the idea of a universal product catalogue and are willing to spend money to ensure it establishes itself. Hopefully in 2009 we see the implementation of user and community-centric functionality that lifts the service from a simple database interface to a thriving AEC specifications centre. Such an endeavour will prove most successful if the functionality can be tightly integrated with Autodesk's 2010 range of AEC products. The majority of AEC professionals spend their working lives buried in these tools, so for Seek's sake lets hope Autodesk does not expend too much effort bringing people to the website, and instead focus on taking the content to the people.