What's New in Autodesk Architectural Studio r2?
Bill Mitchell, FRAIA, Dean of Architecture and Planning at MIT, observes that the interface metaphor of most CAD software has remained virtually unchanged since Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad program nearly 40 years ago (coincidentally at MIT). Ironically, Sketchpad's descendants have little to do with architects' use of sketching as a mode of design thinking. With its initial release of Autodesk Architectural Studio (AAS), Autodesk recaptured and digitally reintegrated this sketch/design process and workflow. Release2 of AAS offers significant speed/performance improvements over r1, a bunch of handy new or enhanced 2-D and 3-D design tools, and another bunch of viewing/navigating/workflow productivity enhancements. This version is a "must" upgrade for AASr1 veterans and a "must have" for any designer who hasn't yet laid down her pencils and markers.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This product report on AASr2 was written prior to seeing the final Beta of AASr3, which I have since seen. Rather than rewrite the report with 20/20 hindsight, I've chosen to preserve its "historical" context by running it as originally written. I'll report on AASr3 as soon as Autodesk's embargo on news of that product has expired—JL
In the category of 2-D/3-D tool enhancements, AASr2 adds arc and spline tools, the ability to do precise 2-D object rotations (say, for aligning a sketch building footprint to a siteplan or aerial photo) and Pantone color system color selections with an "eyedropper" tool for color matching (not to be confused with Autodesk's iDrop technology for dragging web content into drawings and models). Other handy additions to the drafter's toolbox are toggle-able graphics scales and the ability to work in metric or imperial units (ironically, this last pair of choices is easier to move between in AAS, intended for early phase design studies, than it is in Autodesk Architectural Desktop (ADT), which is otherwise better suited to full-blown construction documentation where units of measure really matter). As products mature, developers usually add further interface flexibility and customizability—a trend we can look forward to in coming releases of AAS.
On the performance front, AASr1 users will immediately be pleased with the significant decrease in time to load and open the application. Because AAS workspaces are actually hosted online (with all the attendant advantages for multi-firm collaborative design), some lag in app launch time is a necessary trade-off. Overall on-screen speed has been (literally) accelerated with built-in support for both OpenGL and AGP (Advanced Graphics Port) hardware acceleration. AAS' handling of files in .DWF format has been tweaked for faster operation, and image insertion generally has been speeded up. Switching among workspaces still must be handled through AAS' somewhat clunky Workspace Navigator (rather than through the simpler and more universally understood Windows file system), but this is a necessary trade-off for the advantages of collaborative design.
Among the productivity improvements, no individual item stands out as a "killer app." Collectively, however, the following new or improved features add a significantly enhanced level of usability. Among the biggest productivity boosters is the availability of a "Publish to AAS" plug-in for all recent versions of AutoCAD. This supports fuller integration of AAS into the roundtrip design workflow of firms that may not be 100% ADT3.3 shops (up to now, ADT3.3 was the only way to "publish to AAS"). Also on the subject of workflow, a new "Auto Export" function allows a firm's IT or CAD manager to package and backup workspaces (actually what is saved is the delta or change information from the locally cached copies of the server-based workspaces). Viewing of 2-D and 3-D AAS objects is now much easier with smoothly continuous zooming. Also on the list of better viewing is AASr2's ability to cast shadows on objects, as well as on the ground plane (that is, one object can cast shadows on another object, something that AASr1 couldn't do). Finally, 3-D objects and views now can contain essentially the same properties of color, transparency and so forth that AAS already provided for 2-D.
One of the real drivers for AAS' likely long-term success is the product's (optional and extra cost) collaboration service, which remains largely unchanged in release2. While early adopters may look to in-office design collaborations (the digital/virtual equivalent of the "desk crit" and the "pin up"), the exciting future of AAS collaboration lies in sharing design among firms or between designers, clients and constructors. If there is anything on the AEC industry horizon that holds out the promise of true process change, it is this multi-player collaborative design capability of which AAS is the vanguard. At $600 per year per seat, Autodesk may be ahead of its customers in terms of perceived value for a collaborative capability that is of necessity a bit slow (due to the external, Autodesk-provided hosting of AAS workspaces). Nevertheless, this is the wave of the future.
At $900 for the license, plus $200 for a mandatory one year subscription, AASr2 pricing is unchanged from release1. Autodesk prefers that the price be described as $1,100, but I think that masks the value of the subscription service. Since the interval between these releases is less than one year, the subscription component of AASr1's price bundle entitles all r1 customers to r2 at no additional charge. Thus, there is no upgrade pricing because there are, effectively, no upgrades. Whether a $200 annual subscription on a $900 product (or 22.2% per year) strikes the right balance between Autodesk revenue and customer value really will depend on the frequency and feature-richness of future releases. Pending that outcome, I rate AASr2 a tool that any design firm should be seriously exploring.