Why now is the time for all CAD to be “free”

There was a time when trying new CAD software under a provisional license involved roving bands of surly sales engineers, dog-and-pony demos, and waiting for packages to arrive in the mail. It’s safe to say that most (but not all) CAD software is now more sensibly accessible. But in today’s rapidly changing software market, time-bombed and/or crippled downloadable trialware may not be enough. It’s high time for CAD to go cheap-as-free.


Free stuff, bro

Now before you go off and suffer four simultaneous heart attacks raging against a half-baked utopian pipe dream of free CAD and brownies for everyone, let’s temper that statement with some good old-fashioned practicality. After all, a Google-style you-are-the-product business model is probably not going to fly with most companies’ product IP, and CAD software companies can’t run solely on good intentions and rainbows. Money has to be made somewhere, and certainly should be when value is provided.

Up to this point, that’s chiefly translated into fiercely guarding access and use of software under pain of lawyer. In other words, not so consumer friendly, especially if you happen to be a small company or a freelancer. In the past it was safe to ignore such markets in favor of large customers, but with that segment now saturated, the growth –and the opportunity– lies among the small fries and displacing already deployed CAD seats. But how can free CAD possibly work here?

Attack of the sales engineers

CAD hasn’t been freely accessible for supposedly good reasons. For one, limiting access in theory keeps the software pirates at bay. Well except for the fact that it’s probably getting pirated anyway. ‘Doh.

Aside from the illegal use, why give a freeloader access to an expensively developed tool? The flip side of that question, of course, has been "how do potential customers discover if they want to pay for software if they don’t have access?" The answer to that depends on what caliber of CAD software you’re interested in:

  • Entry (Less than 1K a Seat): On the lower end of the CAD software spectrum, you can trade your identifying information for a trial download right away that may have save limitations, watermarking, or otherwise turns into a digital pumpkin in 30 days’ time.
  • Mid-Market (1-10K a Seat): A direct trial download isn’t as forthcoming, until you cough up a little more information, and there may be a few reseller shenanigans to navigate around. You know the feeling when you walk onto a car lot and sales people hurl themselves at you like finely tuned torpedoes? Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
  • High-End (Over 10K a Seat): On the high end, the process feels more like buying a loft on the international space station. No quick trial download for you. Instead of a salesperson, there may be an industry-specific sales entourage eager to fawn over your company’s specific needs and whisk you through a magical labyrinth of solution options and licensing bundles. All this before letting you anywhere near something you can actually use – and even then, it’ll be a configuration ordeal just to stand it up on your NASA-approved workstation.

Up until now, this business approach has made sense for the CAD market. If you’re remotely interested in a CAD product, you need to jump through a few hoops to even get in the game, and you’re going to have to pay in quick or get lost. Makes for a pretty good conversion rate where freeloaders are left on the side of the road rather quickly.

In contrast, in a new-fangled freemium business model, the ratio of paying customers to freeloaders (i.e. the conversion rate) is in most instances depressingly low. Which means a freemium product carries a lot of freeloaders long term, something that doesn’t sound practical in the CAD universe, does it? The additional complication, especially as you move to higher end CAD, involves technical requirements and inherent complexity of delivering such software. You can’t just let anyone freely use a 40K CAD package can you? Introducing free into this sounds crazy… but it’s not.

Left behind

There’s a user segment that’s left out in the cold with the traditional CAD sales model. Those who want to learn and share. Granted there are student versions if you can prove you’re a student. There also have been some unemployed versions if you can prove you’ve been sacked. Perhaps next we’ll have special editions for particularly dexterous talking animals, provided they have the necessary paperwork. But someone just curious to learn? Silly rabbit, learning is for kids. Much like learning a language – honed CAD skills require practice that can’t be satisfied with 30 day trials. And again like a language, knowing more than one CAD system is huge.

But why does this segment matter? The strongest CAD platforms are backed by the strongest communities. One directly feeds the other. The accessibility of a CAD platform directly affects the resiliency of its community. It’s also key to bottoms up and shadow IT adoption, which is relatively unknown in traditional corporate CAD space, but is far more relevant in the growing multi-CAD reality of smaller companies and freelancers. The strongest CAD community is well positioned to win and maintain market dominance for new generations of engineers.

The new free

When we say free CAD, we mean free to use indefinitely, but under restrictions. Fortunately cloud technology provides multiple answers for making free CAD viable – either through in-browser SaaS delivery, streaming, or online-dependent hybrid desktop models. There’s no longer a need to hand over the keys to the software kingdom to open up access. And the technological barriers to standing up one of the higher end products? Removed.

But if access is free why would customers keep paying? You make it about data, support, and deployment flexibility so that everyone can protect their IP as they see fit – no need to force cloud models on those that don’t want to play. Free users meanwhile are not sitting on the sideline unable to use the product, but instead are actively contributing to an eco-system, and organically growing expertise from which the paying base directly benefits.

What if engineers could learn a platform before applying for a job regardless of their personal situation? What if all engineers had the exposure to the difference between a $1200/yr and a $40k/yr CAD package? Remember, the strongest community wins.