The AutoCAD Workalike Universe

It is estimated that, today, there are about thirty AutoCAD workalikes on the market.

0 April 11, 2016
by Ralph Grabowski

Ever since a tiny software company out of Bellingham, Washington named Softsource first launched VDraft in 1996, a universe of software companies have latched onto the Dream. The Dream is that, among AutoCAD’s millions of users, there must be a few thousand or even hundreds of thousands who want software that works a lot like AutoCAD, but costs much less.

AutoCAD universeI estimate that, today, there are about thirty AutoCAD workalikes on the market. “Workalike” is the polite term for clone, although there are no actual clones of AutoCAD around, legally speaking. That’s because whenever Autodesk comes across a suspected clone, it launches a legal armada to shut it down.

As the companies I mention here are unsued by Autodesk, their software is safe to use. Workalikes are, by now, well-versed in the legal steps they need to take to avoid stepping on Autodesk’s toes.

To be considered an AutoCAD workalike, programs have to offer the following functions:

  • Read and write DWG files natively
  • Use the same command names as AutoCAD, either natively or through aliases
  • Perform many of AutoCAD’s 2D drawing, editing and plotting functions
  • Include some 3D functionality
  • Provide some customization and programming similar to AutoCAD’s

The workalike market began its boom in the years following 1998 when diagramming leader Visio launched IntelliCAD – a big company offering an AutoCAD workalike at 10 percent of the price.

Visio made such a big marketing splash that Autodesk felt compelled to react, thereby legitimizing the new competitor. Visio executives, however, didn’t understand the CAD market well enough and so failed to make a dent.

To get out of it, Visio licensed the IntelliCAD source code to an independent organization, IntelliCAD Technical Consortium and the MCAD universe exploded.

Anyone could become an ITC member, license the IntelliCAD code, customize it a bit and then resell it. Dozens of companies did so, with names like 4M (Greece), Autodesys (USA), CADian (Korea) and progeCAD (Italy).

A second group of software firms, which started out by making their AutoCAD workalike software based on ITC, ended up completely rewriting their programs to differentiate themselves from other ITC members. They also developed their software at a pace faster than what the ITC was capable of. Some of these firms include Bricsys (Belgium) and GStarsoft (China).

The third group of workalikes began right from the start to independently write AutoCAD-compatible code. The companies include IMSI/Design (USA) and Graebert (Germany). In fact, Graebert has itself become a kind of ITC, customizing its ARES CAD system (pictured above) for companies such as Corel (Canada), Dassault Systemes (France), and SKA (Brazil).

The foundation for all of these workalikes is another organization, Open Design Alliance. Each year, it does the grunt work of decoding the latest changes made by Autodesk to the DWG format, and then providing its 1,200 members with programming libraries that read, write and edit AutoCAD drawing files. The APIs are available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS. (Autodesk provides a similar service through its RealDWG API, but is limited to Windows.)

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