Mobile Apps for MCAD Part 1: State of the Industry

Editor’s note: This post was written by Ralph Grabowski and originally published on upFront e.zine and re-published here with permission.

The mobile market is a brutal one. Google and Apple boast that their online stores host over a million apps each, many being trivial. So how do serious developers get noticed above the noise? It helps to have been in there early, as Autodesk was, and so we see AutoCAD 360 with somewhere between ten to fifty million installs on Android alone. In CAD, nothing else comes close. (For installs, Google reports a range of numbers, whereas Apple reports only "likes," a much less accurate figure.) Another reason for AutoCAD 360's high number is, as the CEO of a competitor told me, "Why should we bother writing a DWG app when Autodesk already did it for us?" 

CAD is an industry that loves to be coy about seat numbers, so being on Google's app store can shine a harsh light on the true utility of mobile apps. For instance, at the far end of the installs scale is the PLM app from Oracle, which I would think should be rather popular, but has just 100-500 Android installs. Perhaps people who use PLM are desktop-bound and don't need to access PLM on the go -- or use iPads instead. PTC, for instance, has no Android apps, but programs all of its mobile apps only for iOS.

Onshape app running on an Android tablet

Onshape app running on an Android tablet

The mobile market is a topsey-turvey one, one where software that's big on desktops could flop on mobile devices, or not even exist. Siemens probably has the most mobile apps of any CAD-related company, and yet when I search for "CAD" apps, neither Apple nor Google listed any from Siemens. (The names of apps returned by a search can vary by geographic location.) Dassault Systemes has several mobile apps but none for its Catia MCAD program and just one for SolidworkseDrawings.

Once mobile developers navigate the permission hoops to host their apps in the stores, staying there requires an income. But how do developers get paid in an online economy that expects apps to be free? Even the typical price of 99 cents is effectively free after Apple and Google take their 30% cut; developers can't sustain themselves on tiny amounts.

So developers turn to making an income by adding advertising to their apps, or by releasing Pro versions that cost more, and/or by charging subscriptions to collect money annually. Some, like Autodesk, pressure customers to pay by removing functions with updates to the free version, $50 a year in the case of AutoCAD 360. Once users are on subscription, developer try to increase the annual charge over time.

Chief technology officers tell me that when a price tag is involved Android revenues tend to be smaller than iOS revenues. Whereas iOS devices have only a 15% market share against Android's 85%, it turns out that the kind of people who go for pricey iOS devices are more likely to spend more money later.

Sometimes, however, pricing tactics don't work. Siemens reverted from an annual subscription to a one-time purchase, perhaps because Android installs for CatchBook are a rather dismal 1,000-5,000. IMSI/Design initially charged $995 for their TurboSite Pro app, then backed down to $200. When the revenues aren't there, the developer stops developing, resulting in abandonware. The last time IMSI/Design updated its Turbo line of DWG viewing apps for Android was nearly three years ago; the company continues to update its apps for iOS devices.

Sharing and Emulating

Mobile CAD apps usually need to work with desktop programs and corporate network servers. The smoothest way to move files between them is when app providers integrate the programs into their proprietary cloud, as Autodesk does: your files appear immediately in the app and the desktop, right after you log in.

Alternatives involve email and Dropbox-like services: we can email files to ourselves or save them to a Dropbox folder, and then open them in the app or desktop. When an Android device is connected to the computer with a USB cable, we can use a file manager to move files back and forth. iOS users can work through iTunes.

You can run Android apps on your Windows computer through software emulators, although not iOS apps. This lets you run useful programs like CatchBook inside a Windows environment. There are several emulators on the market, but I found the most straight-forward one to be DuOS from AMI ($15). It runs Android 5 like a Windows program, and works very well on laptop computers with touchscreens.

Anatomy of Survivors

If the app market is as brutal as I've described it, who'd want to stay in it? Well, some CAD vendors make money at it. Others see their presence in mobile as a form of marketing. Several provide access to the mobile version as a benefit to having an annual license with the desktop version. 

To see what MCAD apps are available in 2017, I searched the Apple and Google online stores for "MCAD" and came up with nearly nothing. So I changed the search string to "CAD," which returned about 40 apps each on Apple and Google's stores, plus a whole lot related to foreign currency. (CAD is an abbreviation for the Canadian dollar.) I narrowed the field to those updated in the past 12 months, an indication that the developers are still paying attention to the software. This means that I did not look at otherwise popular apps like GrabCAD or Autodesk Inventor Publisher: they have not been updated in more than three years.

There are many more AEC-oriented apps than MCAD ones. Some of them could be useful in the MCAD world, such as those that record distances using laser measuring devices linked via Bluetooth. Some have functions that would be useful for MCAD, such as merging 3D models with images (like AR), offering libraries of parts that can be dimensioned easily in the app, and placing photos taken on-site into plans.

Next week in part 2, I briefly describe several apps, listing their price tag and popularity as indicated by the number of installs on Android. I installed them to see how well they worked. If an app runs on both Android and iOS, they tend to operate nearly identically. I did not review apps meant primarily for working with DWG files, as they tend to emphasize 2D and have limited 3D capability. 

[This article first appeared in Design Engineering magazine and is reprinted with permission.]

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