MOST OF THE WESTERN WORLD TODAY types on what is known as the QWERTY keyboard. Studies show it is up to 15 percent less efficient than other layouts. Yet, the QWERTY keyboard layout won over rival keyboard layouts. It turns out that the efficiency of typing itself was subjugated in the market process by another type of efficiency—finding trained typists.
As we will learn in this article, there are many industry and market efficiency points. When typewriters were born, the new innovation was filled with competitors. The innovations and comparative advantages between machines bore out a full range of attributes (including price), not just the keyboard layout. But in the final analysis, the Sholes-Remington QWERTY-based typewriters set the course for how we type today because of a factor external to the typewriter—typists and their training.
As economist Paul A. David explains in his landmark 1985 paper Clio and the Economics of QWERTY, despite being freed from the mechanical necessities of up-stroke typebar collisions, QWERTY as the de-facto keyboard layout we live with today became “locked in” due to “technical interrelatedness, economies of scale, and quasi-irreversibility of investment”—the same factors at play in the BIM software market.
BIM and Basic QWERTY-Nomics
As David states, the typewriter and keyboard were the “hardware” of that moment, while the compatible “software” of that moment were typists with their embodied knowledge. It meant “that the expected present value of a typewriter as an instrument of production was dependent upon the availability of compatible software created by typists’ decisions as to the kind of keyboard they should learn.”
That type of interrelatedness is directly reflected in a comment by Jens Kaarsholm, Director of Design Technologies at Copenhagen-headquartered BIG, a signer of the new Nordic Open Letter to Autodesk. (see: AEC Magazine, “Nordic architectural associations demand better value from Autodesk,” 12 Sep 22). When asked why not just switch to another competitive BIM solution, Kaarsholm says one key issue (among several) is recruitment. “It was tricky to find people that came in with Archicad skills,” he notes. “There are just many more people in the market with Revit knowledge.”
This factor is wholly external to what Revit can and cannot do, yet critical in the continued debate inherent in the Letter. Externalities, both positive and negative surrounding BIM solutions cast a shadow across the more explicit disappointments communicated clearly in the latest Nordic Open Letter. The merits of Revit in both positive and negative directions extend far beyond the product.
To help illustrate this point, a quote from David: “To understand what had happened in the fateful interval of the 1890s, the economist must attend to the fact that typewriters were beginning to take their place as an element of a larger, rather complex system of production that was technically interrelated.”
…that the expected present value of a typewriter as an instrument of production was dependent upon the availability of compatible software created by typists’ decisions as to the kind of keyboard they should learn.
A BIM tool is one key component in an evolving and complex technical landscape. Insofar as David’s famous essay, his concepts helped set the course for understanding consumer behavior in technology markets with increasing returns due to externalities or what is also known as “network effects.” Famous competitive battles involving network effects include VHS versus Betamax and Mac versus Windows PC. However, they also affect most AEC technology decisions and those involving technology standards for data portability.
Technical interrelatedness, economies of scale, and quasi-irreversibility of investment are the three legs upon which QWERTY-Nomics stand. No matter where the AEC industry goes, both Autodesk and its chief competitors, and whether its customers will follow its path toward Forma, continue with Revit, or move elsewhere, these three factors are decisional and bear out economically across the industry. Within this framework, we can evaluate the industry’s present state or peer into a specific technology adoption situation.
The issues of the “Nordic Open Letter” are the same as the first Open Letter. However, this one’s different in one essential regard. This time four professional bodies are behind the Nordic Open Letter, which suggests the Letter’s impact in the market will be deeper this time.
The Open Letters put forth the essential issue—a lack of development attention and progress (development velocity) in Autodesk Revit, simultaneous to rising software licensing costs and unacceptable license management practices. Firms behind the Revit Open Letter feel they are receiving little to no benefit from continued licensing dollar investments. “We have been waiting for nearly two years for things to change, and we haven’t really seen anything substantial that has come around,” says Morten M. Ræder, Senior Architect, BIM Coordinator, and QA Manager at Nordic Office of Architecture, a Letter signatory firm.
After the first Open Letter in 2020, Autodesk did become more public in its Revit roadmap, but Letter firms will state that what is on the public Revit roadmap and the center of their concern are vastly different in scope. Letter firms we spoke to say the Revit roadmap is filled with low-hanging fruit and is absent the more serious technical requests that often center around Revit making better utilization of modern-day hardware as well as leading (not following) the industry in interoperability standards.
I don’t have a problem with them not developing the product [Revit] anymore (referring to Autodesk’s future directions with Forma) if it is reflected back in the price, so it frees up the resources to buy the tools elsewhere.
The new Nordic Letter reads, “Almost two years on from the first Open Letter, we see no substantial progress or development of Autodesk’s core products. The updates that have been delivered have not been deep or consequential.” And then there is the lack of communication about the next-generation solution that will take architects beyond Revit. That part, at least, has been partially addressed at Autodesk University 2022 in New Orleans in late September. Now Autodesk customers, especially Open Letter firms, know some hard new facts about Revit and its future.
Finally, the Revit licensing and subscription transition has been criticized intensely. Even Autodesk’s BIM rivals have seized on the bitterness in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in their marketing messaging. And the issue is not just the direct cost changes but also the cost of transitioning to a new licensing model. Kaarsholm of BIG suggests that the transition was “rushed into the market without being tested at the user level.”
Despite transitions to subscription licensing being a broad software industry trend, the cost factors of licensing switches need to calculate for disruption and lost capacities in addition to license fees—costs that all Open Letter firms we spoke to say have dramatically risen over the past few years. For some practices, the tension between increased costs and development non-alignment is a vital issue.
Nils Fischer, Director at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), told Architosh the firm had seen a 2.5x effective seat cost increase since the licensing changes. “I don’t have a problem with them not developing the product [Revit] anymore (referring to Autodesk’s future directions with Forma) if it is reflected back in the price, so it frees up the resources to buy the tools elsewhere.”
Fischer’s comment directly touches upon the quasi-irreversibility of investment, one of the three pillars of QWERTY-Nomics, recognizing a fundamental principle in how markets self-optimize when finite resources (and they are always finite) are redeployed toward other market providers. ZHA’s Fischer recognizes that investment is not truly irreversible and that to solve deeper problems ZHA is facing, it must be able to fund new types of solutions. With Forma’s announcement, in relation to Revit, Autodesk ought to reduce Revit licensing so firms can redeploy resources; otherwise, Fischer fears “they [Autodesk] are kind of taking their audience hostage.”
Autodesk CEO, Andrew Anagnost, will contend that Autodesk has gone through such cycles of customer despair before during similar transformations, especially with Inventor customers leaving the Autodesk fold only to eventually return to Autodesk Fusion 360, the company’s modern, data-centric design and manufacturing (D&M) platform. “I do want to keep customers,” says Anagnost, “but I’m a pragmatist too, and I remember when we made all the changes in the manufacturing applications, and we actually lost some customers in that journey.”
Anagnost feels confident that, in the end, Autodesk’s new cloud future for AEC, Autodesk Forma, will please the very Open Letter customers that may opt to leave the Revit platform. As he said in an exclusive feature on Architosh introducing Forma, “if you want a faster horse, you might not want to work with us because we will not make a faster horse. But we can be that partner and tool provider that supports professionals into the new era of architecture.”
While AU22’s announcement of industry clouds and Autodesk Forma for AEC did provide some clarity to the Open Letter firms, there remains a lack of detail about how soon Forma may address some of the issues addressed by the Open Letter firms. What is known is that initial Forma capabilities will be available in select regions in the first half of next year.
The cloud has changed everything, it has enabled us to deliver power in certain ways and on multiple platforms that we were not able to do before.
Based on technology generated by the Nordic Spacemaker team, Autodesk Forma will eventually take over detail design, not just schematic-level design. To some architects, the excitement about a future where AI-over-the-shoulder takes care of the grunt work of detail design is both exciting and confronting. In a casual conversation with Spacemaker co-founder Carl Christiansen at Autodesk University, he was enthusiastic about what machine learning and AI can eventually do for architects, including at the detail design stage. Still, he admits that this paradigm shift, as it has been called, is five-plus years in the making.
“The cloud has changed everything,” says Anagnost, noting that Revit’s paradigm was based on desktop computing way before the cloud emerged, “it has enabled us to deliver power in certain ways and on multiple platforms that we were not able to do before.”
Some Open Letter firms, however, are not likely to take the new cloud direction with the same level of enthusiasm and confidence. Nils Fischer of ZHA says that his firm, a marquee design firm doing extraordinary work that is often very different than the average architect, wishes to construct its tech stack on a per-project basis, “fit for purpose for a project that is different in every case,” he adds.
On the suggestion that Forma may solve the interoperability issues that are necessarily critical for constructing tech stacks fit for purpose per project, he says, “Autodesk’s roadmap seems to suggest that we can have interoperability if we allow them to take ownership of our data. That is very different from what we have seen in other industries and not really acceptable [to us] in the long run as a strategy.”
Anagnost contends that Forma may not work for everybody. “If you look at what we are doing, we are connecting everything end-to-end,” he adds, “but we recognize we will not satisfy every single niche need, nor should we. But we will go from conceptual design to construction and probably to hand-over and operations.” Anagnost’s vision for Forma is large and all-encompassing and to say they wish to disrupt themselves says something about the company’s sheer market power in the AEC/O industry. That, too, is an issue in the Nordic Open Letter.
next page: A Natural Monopoly—The Question