Some Thoughts On The Autodesk Acquisition Of VisualTau

In an earlier post titled “What Is AutoCAD WS?” I wrote:

“We were discussing the nature of this application [AutoCAD WS]. Flash appears to be out of the question because Apple does not support Flash on the iPhone and iPad. The only way to run Flash on the iPhone and iPad is to jailbreak it from Apple’s clutches. So my guess is that AutoCAD WS is a native iOS application that Autodesk developed alongside AutoCAD for Mac.”

Kean Walmsley of Autodesk wrote an article on his blog about a discussion he had with Tal Weiss, Senior Software Development Manager of AutoCAD WS, wherein they talked about how and why they did not or could not use the same Project Butterfly Flash code to develop AutoCAD WS. So just as I suspected Autodesk rewrote Project Butterfly as a new C++ kernel so that they could make AutoCAD WS work on iOS. The interesting thing is that 95% of this new code is cross platform, which means that will be able to port it relatively easily on other platforms and devices as well.

So as Tal mentioned, Autodesk now has two code bases for Project Butterfly, the Flash based ActionScript code that they got from VisualTau and the new C++ code that they rewrote themselves. Tal is now suggesting that Autodesk may dump the ActionScript code base completely and move to HTML5. In my earlier post I wrote:

“According to this article Autodesk supposedly paid $25 million for it. If that is indeed the case then I hope Autodesk got much more than just an AutoCAD clone running in Flash, that too an incomplete one.”

I now hope more than ever that Autodesk got much more than ActionScript code for $25 million (if that is indeed the number) because they now are thinking of flushing it down the toilet and replacing it by HTML5. And so far Project Butterfly has been a free Labs project. So I don’t believe Autodesk has seen any return on investment yet, at least not directly. I wonder if Autodesk did its due diligence properly before acquiring VisualTau. First of all, the ActionScript code that they acquired was quite limited. I mean you could not do much with Project Butterfly. Then they figured that it did not work fast enough. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the whole point of Project Butterfly to make AutoCAD-like functionality available on portable devices? Didn’t Autodesk know that Flash is middle ware sitting between the hardware and end user software and that it would slow things down? I mean, what’s the point of running Project Butterfly on a desktop or notebook? For markup and review you already have the free Autodesk Design Review.

And to add to it, we now hear from Tal that Autodesk did not start rewriting their code because Apple did not support Flash on the iOS. They did that because they found their ActionScript Flash code to be running too slowly. They made the decision to dump Flash even before Apple made that Flash announcement. Obviously there is much more to it. But from where I’m looking at all this, the acquisition of VisualTau seems to be rather unnecessary.

  • Thanks for the link!

    I’m not an M&A specialist – and was not involved in this acquisition, in any way – but I do know that there’s almost always more to an acquisition than simply the technology. For instance, people who have learned valuable lessons building a product once often do it better the next time. And then there are presumably market-related factors.

    I dare say it’s really only possible to judge whether a particular acquisition was valuable with 20-20 (and distant) hindsight. But that’s, once again, just my personal commentary.

    What I can say now is that a lot of the Q&A with Tal has been held back until I’m able to discuss the details publicly. I suggest waiting to see further outcomes before writing this one off completely.


    P.S. One final comment, as I re-read your post… do you really “dump” something when you port it to another environment? Especially when ActionScript is similar in syntax to JavaScript (which I assume means the shift to HTML5 would be even easier than to C++)?

  • Kean, if knowledge and experience is all that a company is looking for they hire/poach/whatever individuals from other companies. There is really no need to spend millions on buying entire companies. But I get your point.

    About “dumping” the ActionScript code I will just say this. Finding a programmer who can port code from some language to some other language is really no bid deal. There are people in places like Russia who do an excellent job of that. And they charge a very affordable hourly rate. The actual value is added by the programmer who writes the original code. In this case those programmers belonged to Autodesk, the ones that created AutoCAD and are adding new features that others are busy cloning.

    VisualTau simply created or tried to create a clone of AutoCAD in Flash. If all that Autodesk wanted was a clone of AutoCAD in Flash, a simple outsourcing project would have done the trick.

    But then like you said, M&A is a complicated thing and I hope that there was much more involved in the VisualTau deal other than just a port of AutoCAD in ActionScript.

  • $25 M is a drop in the bucket to Autodesk. If buying Visual Tau meant that Autodesk was seen to have a cloudy DWG offering up, running and receiving user feedback 6 months earlier that it could have done by writing its own, then it might be considered money well spent.