The Right to Choose

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

No, it's not a post about pro-choice vs. "pro-life". We've made an explicit decision to avoid politics. This is a (-nother) post about the software industry.

In the beginning there was Silicon Graphics. This was the first real commercially-available package designed to produce 3d computer graphics and animation. The package typically consisted of a powerhouse computer (Motorola 680x0) and custom software designed by Silicon Graphics. This was the mid-80s, and the sort of things it was used for were flying logos for network news stations, extraordinarily-expensive commercials, and the like. Prior to this, most 3d computer graphics (Think "Tron" or the video for "Money For Nothing") was done with proprietary software, and rendered on mainframe supercomputers like the Cray.

Silicon was the right product at the right time. 3d Graphics exploded in the late 80s, early 90s era, producing the sort of awe and inspiration that George Reeves did as Superman in the 50s, flying via the aid of what was then pretty impressive technology, rear-projection.

As an interesting aside, Christopher Reeve as Superman was filmed in the late 70s using front-projection, producing a clearer, more vibrant effect, and allowed the camera to move much more convincingly. Though the effect looks nearly as cheesy as George lying on a table with a fan on him (14:30 - keep watching to hear the wonderful line "no, i don't believe it", delivered with the acting ability of a packet of soy sauce), it was amazing at the time, and still ingeneous to this day. The front projection worked via a system of one-way mirrors that allowed the projection to come from the exact direction of the camera. What is precisely behind Christopher is actually his shadow, cast on the reflective backdrop. You never see this because he's always in the way.

Videos like Michael Jackson's ground-breaking, 1991 famously expensive "Black or White" were hallmarks of the new technology (later, facial morphing technology became commonplace and required no more than a 486 computer, due to the stunning originality seen in Jackson's video). Later, the cost had come down enough, though not by any means cheap, to use 3d graphics in feature films, most famously in Jurassic Park. (Steven Spielburg, so smitten with Industrial Light and Magic's Silicon Graphics workstation, even gave it a role in the movie, being the computer on which the unix our intrepid young hero knows is running.)
Silicon's industry clout and power was almost complete. It had become a defacto standard, and the company itself was able to acquire several competing properties, such as Wavefront, Alias and even the old horse itself, Cray Supercomputers.

All this time, the charge of the Computer-Aided Design (CAD) industry had been led by its own champion, Autodesk.
The history of Autodesk itself is fascinating, though by no means unique. The part that is unique is the fact that you can get access to it via one of the company's original founders, John Walker. Download it (zipped PDF, ~5.5MB), it's worth your time if you're intersted in computer history.

Autodesk was becoming its own standard, and its flagship product AutoCAD was used by architects all over the world to design most modern buildings. Autodesk had several other products, each sort of tuned to specific architectural challenges, like electrical wiring, landscape design, etc. Computers were getting more powerful, and cheaper, though, and desktop computers were able to do some pretty amazing things. Autodesk had a team develop a 3d design and animation package that could run lower-end non-proprietary workstations called 3d Studio.

The first shot had been fired.

The spinoff company was eventually renamed Kinetix, and after several changes in the naming of their core product (3d Studio MAX could run on Windows, instead of DOS), and in 1999, Autodesk bought Canadian company Discreet Logic, and merged it with Kinetix, keeping the Discreet moniker.

Meanwhile, other packages had sprung into existence, most without the power and influence of these industry titans, but with some surprising abilities. Softimage|3D, produced by Avid (makers of desktop video editing software) was a surprisingly effective and popular product, as was Silicon's own subsidiary's return volley at Discreet, Alias Maya.

Stay with me. I know it's complicated.

Maya was eventually ported to run on Linux, and Macintosh workstations as well as Windows, giving it a cross-platform ability that Discreet's heavily Windows-oriented 3d Studio MAX could never match. But at the time, Mac and Linux user share was even more dismal than it is now, so the overall benefit of this was somewhat questionable. Still, these packages did pretty well and the competition was fierce, resulting in yearly releases (unheard of for programs of this kind of complexity, and, to be honest, nearly identical feature sets. I happened to be a 3d Studio MAX person, since version 2.5, but had I learned Maya (which was originally more common in design schools), I imagine there would be no real discernable difference.

All these packages decimated Silicon's own market share. Now Maya was an Alias product, but its parent company had never had competition of this magnitude before. The bottom dropped out of the highend unix-based mainframe rendering market (due in part to advances in 3d graphics technologies available on consumer desktops, thanks to nvidia and ATI), and Silicon was just barely hanging on, with Maya its only lifeline. Autodesk, however, was doing really well, with 3d Studio MAX competing well against Maya, but with the company's other products, many purchased properties, such as the rest of Discreet Logic's video-production line, it was only a matter of time before Maya gave up the ghost.

In 2005, the struggling subsidiary Alias sold Maya off to the highest bidder, after its parent company Silicon Graphics got delisted from the NYSE for having too low a price per share. The highest bidder? Autodesk.

Similar circumstances caused Softimage|3D's successor Softimage|XSI to be sold to the highest bidder in 2008. Again, Autodesk.

Mudbox, the 3d sculpting software developed by the ex-members of Weta Digital? Sold to Autodesk in 2007.

Revit, the parametric 3d CAD program (competing with and better than in certain circumstances AutoCAD). Bought in 2002.

Look out, Lightwave. Look out, modo. Your founders might benefit from a big buyout, but your customers may not.

One might say that the aquisition of all this software by one single company helps the integration between the software and allows for smoother workflow for projects large and small. One might also say that this idealism is somewhat short-lived (see Adobe's purchase and awkward merging of Macromedia's assets). I would suggest though that, as with Adobe, it's only a matter of time before one of Autodesk's internally competing products is killed off, no doubt with some marketing speak about how you don't even have to integrate them any more being the rationale. (Freehand forever!)

All this is just the way of the world in software-land. I suppose it's only a matter of time before Autodesk, or some other large company snatches up the remains of DAZ 3d (nee eovia, nee MetaCreations), SmithMicro (nee efrontier, nee also MetaCreations). The big daddy of them all, Microsoft Corporation has purchased the company responsible for the first 3d modeller I ever used, trueSpace, no doubt to compete with Google's aquisition of SketchUp, in an effort to improve their 3d mapping feature.

It's a melancholy and somewhat funny future to muse on - Adobe buys Autodesk, and is then purchased by Microsoft, or Google or who cares. In the land of software, there's always the danger of monopolies, the lack of choice, same as any other industry.

But look at how we're combating the industries we see as monopolistic. Software has open-source, music has Creative Commons, even telephony, the poster child for monopolies, is being subverted by jailbreaking and VoIP. Even while the Baby Bells are reforming into their version of Voltron, the industry is moving past them.

I used to be worried about all this Mergering and Acquisitioning. It bothered me that every time I looked into a new package, it turned out to now have "Autodesk" at the front of its name. Now I feel somewhat sorry for the folks at Autodesk who have the task of trying to make their software look and feel similar to the product line (something which Adobe is still trying to do, even with software it created 20 years ago). Microsoft and Google aren't going anywhere anytime soon, so if you're a fan of the product, maybe it's a good thing that it might be bought up by a company that has more than a piddly $1.7B in sales per year. More secure.

I wouldn't say no to a little choice though.

Nowadays, I use Blender. No, it's not as good as 3DS MAX. I'm not nearly as fast in it. Yeah, the interface is weird (but then again, so is MAX's). But I don't have to worry about whether I'm going to be able to afford it, which platform I can run it on, whether I have a beefy enough computer to run it. It does the job I want it to do, and I don't have to boot into Windows to use it. I can run it on all my computers, and the files are interoperable. Not to mention that the last several years have seen some impressive improvements.

This isn't a post about how Open Source will change the software world forever. To begin with, I don't even believe that. But it works for me and if it works for you, too, then great! I look forward to seeing your work, no matter what platform or program you made it in. Let the big software companies worry about how they're going to get your $1800 (only $1200 if you upgrade every year!), adding the thinnest of features, and questionable UI paradigms. We'll worry about actually making content. It's better that way.

Eldritch: Wow, Silicon Graphics. That really takes me back. I'm reminded of our High School's annual pilgrimage to the local university's computer fair, where the few hundred or so computer enthusiasts from around the region could gather and bathe in the heady atmosphere of bits and bytes. Of course, the vendors came, too, dutifully trotting out their wares. None were more despised than the narcs from the Business Software Alliance (Don't Copy That Disk!), but the nirvana of geekdom was the SGI workstation that Silicon Graphics trotted out (well, that and the Cray. Oh, the Cray).

One year, one of our more precocious (and foolish) classmates walked right up to the Cray salespeople and began asking about the workstation. Much like any one of us pale, emaciated geeks and a member of the fairer sex, this fellow just wouldn't have known what to do with a Cray if he ever got his hands on one. But the salespeople indulged him, answering his questions dutifully. Then, nodding along, the nerdy fellow finally dropped the bomb: "So how much would one of these cost me?" The salesperson (somehow) kept his calm, and just said "Well, they start at around a million dollars." The nerd's face went pale, and he stumbled away.


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