Carl Bass, who retired from his CEO post at Autodesk early in 2017, was lured away from his Berkeley workshops to speak at TEC Talk. It meant time away from racing his go-cart with an onboard neural network, an electrified Shelby GT, and a host of other projects. He would only do it if he didn’t have to prepare. It helped that Ron Fritz, CEO of Tech Soft 3D, the company that holds the event, was an old friend (Fritz took over the HOOPS Summit after Bass left for Autodesk) and that this year’s TEK Talk was taking place nearby, on the San Francisco waterfront.
Carl Bass, former CEO of Autodesk (left), and Ron Fritz, CEO of Tech Soft 3D, at TEK Talk in San Francisco. The bombs are about to drop.
The event is usually held in Boston because "that's where our customers are," said Fritz. To be sure, East Coast players are largely absent from the West Coast event. TEC Talk is held before the HOOPS Summit. They should have come because not doing so meant that everyone could talk about them. And they did. Onshape, in particular, took it on the chin.
And Here’s Carl…
The headline event, Carl Bass’s talk, was well received. Without Hirschtick, Heppelemann, Bernard, Bassi or a Bentley brother, Bass was the only member of CAD royalty in attendance. Retired but still on the Autodesk board of directors, Bass is freer to talk about his time at the company. It was hard to be a CEO of such a big, sprawling organization, he said. People expected you to be omniscient. “My Australia team could not show up for work for two weeks, and I'd never know about it.”
Bass was critical of the CAD industry for not having done much of anything new in 25 years—though he had led the CAD market leader for 11 of those years. He talked about asking a group of designers what CAD software they use and remarked that their CAD applications were "older than they are. "According to Bass, the last interesting thing that happened to CAD was SOLIDWORKS—and that was 25 years ago.
Could Bass have possibly forgotten about Onshape—and Autodesk's own Fusion 360—both of which are more recent cloud-based CAD applications?
"What about Onshape?" I have to ask.
Big mistake. I shouldn’t provoke Bass. To do so is to risk becoming the story rather than reporting on one. A journalistic no-no.
Basss swings without hesitation. Onshape, according to Bass, is a "half-assed imitation of SOLIDWORKS that happens to run on the cloud and is a classic example of the CAD industry worrying about technical problems rather than the needs of their users. It doesn’t solve a single problem for any customer,” he continued "and therefore, they have had no traction in what...five years?"
Bass has a lot of respect for what the founders (including Hirschtick) did with SOLIDWORKS, offering a big chunk of what Pro/ENGINEER could do at the price of AutoCAD, which ran on $3,000 computers. That mattered. This [Onshape] doesn’t matter.
Bass wants to talk about more interesting things, like machine learning,and said, "Onshape is not one of them."
It was another bombshell from the ever-spontaneous Bass. It was not the first time he has taken on the competition publicly. Perhaps most famous was his anti-PLM rap delivered in 2007 (only to announce Autodesk 360 for PLM four years later). His non scripted remarks and avuncular attitude made him popular with the media, which is accustomed to carefully prepared remarks and marketing-heavy messages. No target is too large for Bass. He has even slammed President Trump on Twitter.
Comments from the Industry
Although someone jumps in to defends Onshape, outing himself as a paying customer, other attendees will later fall in line with Bass’s assessment of Onshape’s lack of traction. They don’t think it’s catching on—at least not fast enough. Hats off to the great Jon Hirschtick for trying, though.
Reached for comment was Autodesk present CEO, Andrew Anagnost, who, while choosing not to comment specifically on what Bass had said, seemed to agree in principle. SOLIDWORKS CEO Gian Paulo Bassi, ever the gentleman, declined to comment on the competition. It was a chance for Jon Hirschtick to reveal the actual numbers of paid customers, but Hirschtick chose to say only that he had "thousands of customers."
Well, maybe Hirschtick is waiting for a million customers before Onshape makes the announcement.
Despite competition and the media’s impatience, Hirschtick gives little sign that he is in any hurry. Perhaps he is biding his time, knowing that in time Onshape will gather up paid users and is using that time. No doubt he is using this time to make Onshape more robust, increase the company’s partners, and make Onshape the easy-to-get/easy-to-use CAD program for every engineer unencumbered by—or bogged down by—traditional CAD systems. It's the same let's-change-habits, profit-can-wait approach used with great success by Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Amazon endured losses for many years, but managed to make itself so convenient, so habit-forming that traditional shopping establishments now all seem at risk.