CAD Collaboration

(or how I learned to stop worrying and love ambiguity)

This post covers the issues surrounding CAD collaboration and past approaches to resolving it. It then concludes with a concept of how decentralised digital model development could be undertaken in a manner that reflects the ambiguous environment in which collaborative design is experienced.

The Problem of Digital Model Orientated Collaboration

Modelling an architectural design in CAD almost never occurs in an isolated environment. Typically work is undertaken with at least one other person simultaneously in order to meet development deadlines. Unfortunately issues arise when participants wish to simultaneously change the same design element, or a set of design changes inadvertently effect another aspect of the digital model.

Recently I was asked to comment on a debate that was raging in the Vectorworks forums related to its minimal set of collaboration functionality. Whilst the forum thread initially begun as a feature request it soon evolved into rather heated debate over how collaboration functionality in CAD should function (if at all). Central to this online debate was the role internal offices processes and politics held in the success of a collaborative digital model. Whilst this is typically the most visible factor we must also keep in mind the mere introduction of digital models has significantly altered our collaboration psyche.

Reviewing Autodesk Design Review

Recently Autodesk dropped the price tag off their Autodesk Design Review package making it far more accessible to the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry. Design Review is a DWF-centric tool for viewing and reviewing 2D and 3D design documentation. Prior to becoming freely available Design Review appeared to the casual observer as a useful tool for those heavily into Autodesk products but not the mainstream audience. This pricing shift changes the game and enables the software to compete against Adobe Acrobat as the primary, general purpose viewing tool for design documentation. With this in mind I took a fresh look at the software and what follows is what I found.

2.0 C&C tools and my experiences

There has been a few interesting articles about products that hope to assist in the process of communicating and collaborating (C&C). Tangler sets out to do this by providing a mechanism for grouping various discussion sources (blogs, instant messaging, mailing lists) into a single 'group' that can be easily searched, scanned and in turn discussed. It sounds like they aim to get around the problem of information dispersion, ie. an interesting blog here, a somewhat handy mailing list here. This could be really useful in certain arenas like open source where often I find myself going to several similar but different discussion venues (mailing lists, forums, blogs) in order to find the answer to a certain question. Unfortunately it would also seem like the potential for making money out of such a system is pretty low, not only because similar systems already exist but also because the 'value-add' is relatively small when put in the context of the web, search engines and the flexibility of RSS.

Thesis update & Campfire

It has been a while since I last posted, mainly because for the last month and a bit I've been busy preparing and implementing Reasonate within BBSc303. Consequently its been a pretty interesting time. It seems to be working out really well, I've got to grips with Rails (to the point that I cringe at the thought of having to do Java stuff) and almost all of the functionality has been implemented in an easy to use manner. Tagging and RSS have been implemented and introduced to the students whilst the project blogging aspect will come into play once the students form their project teams. Overall the students have picked up the ideas very quickly and some are really getting into the swing of things.


WikiCalc is a new piece of online software from Dan Bricklin that is attempting to bring the venerable spreadsheet to the Web. NewsForge is running a review of the initial alpha release and it seems pretty good. Recently he was interviewed on the Gillmor Gang about this software and his ideas around it. It is a fairly nice idea now that we live in an Internet full of Ajax and rich interaction. My initial feeling was that he was angling for a Google/Microsoft/Yahoo buyout but surprisingly he has put the source code online for others to download. This is a good thing from a free software perspective and hopefully with the support of others there will soon be a viable (and hopefully embeddable) spreadsheet application for the Web.

New AutoDesk DWF blog - Beyond the Paper

There is a new AutoDesk blog about DWF from Scott Sheppard. He has an fairly nice overview of what a DWF is exactly and then goes on to explain why Adobe and AutoDesk are not 'at war' with their PDF and DWF standards. This is something I completely disagree with and I think subconsciously he does too with comments like "if you want to solve real problems... then PDF is not enough" and "never fly in a plane that was designed from a PDF".

Microsoft Office Live = Low cost web collaboration?

Today Microsoft released a Beta of Microsoft Office Live, a set of online tools targetted primarily at small businesses. With the product Microsoft appears to be aiming its big guns at rather than Google's GMail, GTalk and rumoured calendar products. It is also a push to provide extra value within the Office lineup now that free software like OpenOffice are generating serious competition in their bread and butter, writing, counting and presenting marketspace. Microsoft Monitor has a good article about what Office Live is not which is probably more helpful than the stuff that comes out of Microsoft PR.

Regardless of how it is adopted worldwide it would appear to be a very good value proposition to New Zealand businesses. Currently vanilla hosting (web/email) are relatively expensive and for decent web/email/collaboration services it is easier (and often cheaper) to host things internally. If Microsoft can introduce these services within New Zealand at the same cost as advertised in the U.S. it should hopefully cause a shakeup within the local pricing structure. $50-$60 per month for email, web and basic collaboration services is extremely good value especially if Microsoft can integrate these online services with their desktop bretherin (which they will no doubt do). Another important concern for any business will be the backup/redundancy services offered. At this point it is unclear if this data can be easily backed up locally in a relatively open format (not encrypted Office Live only files).

Autodesk presentation and moves by Adobe

Before Christmas I watched a video from the AutoDesk University keynote. The theme of the keynote was interoperability but the goings on concerned how different AutoDesk applications could talk to each other using DWG and DWF formats. It is rather ironic that a single silo is only just beginning to tout its ability to exchange data within itself whilst the IAI is promoting the adoption of a generic IFC model. Something that stood out during the presentation was that even though 'interoperability' was the theme there was no mention of IFCs. This is a clear indication that AutoDesk is concerned about the security of their silo and through the promotion of their own exchange standards they retain format control, and consequently customer subscriptions, to their AEC silo.

37signals: Basecamp

I had heard the name 37signals before as they are a leading Ruby on Rails development house but I had never really thought of checking out what they were up to until this week. It turns out their Basecamp product is a very tidy project management tool with a rather large following. Feature-wise it is fairly simple and is completely centralised around the 37signals server farm (no local Intranet version). Rather than focus on email processes 37signals picks up on the blog model of posts and comments with a central (unversioned?) file repository. It appears their target audience is distributed Web developers who need a simple way to manage the comings and goings of a small group of workers.

A couple of nice upcoming Web applications

A couple of promising applications have been brought to my attention recently. Both are tied closely to the Web and have great collaboration potential. These applications are Writely and AllPeers.

Writely is an AJAX enabled web-browser based word processor. It has some very tidy formatting tools and supports the loading and saving of Microsoft Word compatable .doc files. Whilst its operating system neutral design is very encouraging what is even more interesting is its in built collaboration tools. As it is founded on the Web it has the inherit capability of allowing more than one person to actively edit a document at the same time without any security implications (try doing that in Microsoft Word). I only wish they provided a downloadable version of the software so that local versions of the applications could be used and developed upon.