A RENT-A-CAD Future?

CAD_leaseThe pace of transformation and innovation in software, combined with the rise of the cloud is beginning to challenge traditional notions of software “ownership”.  Perpetual licensing, once the cornerstone of software delivery seems now to be under assault, for good or ill.  In the past software has been treated much like an appliance or a car, fork over alot of money and stick with it for quite some time.  The boldness of vendors pushing hard on subscription models has been the source of some genuine excitement, but also quite a bit of consternation.  And now with recent subscription announcements by both Solid Edge and AutoCAD even the sheltered world of CAD is not immune.

Within the mainstream, Microsoft is keen on pushing Office 365, aggressively pricing access to the entire Microsoft Office suite for $100 a year on up to 5 PC’s and 5 mobile devices.  Microsoft sees this as an opportunity to fight off incursions from Google Docs and also normalize their Office revenue stream, previously subject to wild fluctuations from upgrades.  In a coy marketing move, Microsoft is currently promoting a free Xbox Live subscription with new Office 365 subscriptions.  No doubt they see the generational synergy between the downloadable revolution within gaming and their legacy productivity suites.  On the business end, Microsoft offers similar subscription models at different tiers with a variety of enterprise level add-ins like team sites, web conferencing, security, and administration features.  Microsoft is hoping to lure everyone away from the perpetual license model with  incentives: “Please, please come to the subscription cloud, we have candy and ponies!”  Their hope is in a few years people will strain to remember perpetually licensed Office.

Bolder still, Adobe has recently committed all their creative suite products to exclusive cloud delivery by subscription only.  CS6 will be the last stand-alone, perpetually licensed version of any of the popular Creative Suite applications like Photoshop, Premiere, or illustrator.  An immediate casualty are amateur photographers and other casual users who normally upgrade every two releases or so.  As an “all you can eat” model, the occasional use paradigm is effectively obliterated.  While Adobe’s pricing is certainly cheaper than shelling out for the entire Creative Suite on a regular basis, users of only one or two programs in that suite don’t have a cost-effective alternative.  But unlike Microsoft, Adobe doesn’t care about incentivizing anyone, quietly hoping that any naysayers promptly DIAF.  Some people, myself included, have been a bit upset by this.  Predictably, Adobe simply thinks haters gonna hate.  Regardless, the subscription model does have compelling advantages, especially for professional users whose needs involve large swaths of the Adobe Creative Suite.

Meanwhile, on Isla Nublar, where dinosaurs still rule the earth, most of the CAD world seems trapped in post modern 1987 licensing hell.  Unlike the Microsoft or Adobe products, most of the CAD packages are significantly more expensive even for mid market products, while higher-end suites are priced more like luxury vehicles.   In most cases this premium is due to increased complexity.  As such, you would think such high perpetual costs would make CAD software ideally suited to subscription pricing.  But instead, many if not most products are still delivered as perpetual named-user licensing with dreaded maintenance.  Previously, I addressed this in the Training CADpocalypse by citing scenarios where subscription models are absolutely essential.  With Solid Edge and now AutoCAD in the subscription game it would seem we have arrived at the turn of the tide.  Quoted straight from Autodesk’s announcement:

“People are increasingly seeking out experiences with less financial or time investment, and consuming products and services through renting, sharing and purchasing subscriptions.   Lisa Gansky, author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing wrote, ‘We’re in a moment in which access to goods, services, and talent is going to triumph over the ownership of them.’ “

So we’re all good, right?  Nope.avi.  Curiously, the new CAD subscription models have been carefully crafted to keep an old licensing anachronism very much alive: the reseller.  The reseller/distributor model is akin to car dealerships, where the troublesome delivery and service experience for an endpoint customer was left to a third party, who often would be specialized in a market or region and might offer additional services.  The trouble is, since the early days software resellers began appearing, we’ve invented this thing called the internet.  And the internet now comes complete with digital software delivery via the cloud.  Not to mention the need to separately bill maintenance is a sure sign your software organization and pricing model is likely older than dirt.

While it’s true you can directly subscribe to either CAD product, the fact the resellers are still in the loop speaks volumes to the antiquity of CAD licensing.  In the same way car dealers persist, despite challenges from companies like Tesla, expect the same to hold true for resellers who in some cases have created a whole sub-industry of dealer-installed options like their automotive counterparts.

But wait, there’s more!  Maybe that’s what holds the existing paradigm together, so many customers receive the illusion of a deal by haggling with their resellers, but ultimately you have several layers of distribution cost already baked in.  You would think eliminating all the logistical and legal complexity within the current software licensing would help reduce overall cost.  Some, however highlight that the support services from the software vendors is so bad, that a landscape without resellers would be a difficult one.

Service and delivery models aside,  longer-term hazards of a subscription-only future are also not necessarily trivial.  Some argue that in a subscription only paradigm, there is little leverage to block against subscription price increases and that software providers lose incentive to differentiate new product versions with value-add features.  There is also some concern that while current software subscriptions are currently just digital delivery that (for better or worse) they may transform into completely cloud-based SaaS implementations, complete with requirements to store all data in the cloud.

Despite the hazards, it surely seems subscription based CAD is the way to go.  So what do you think about the RENT-A-CAD future?