By Nick Harris
This year we turn 30. Cadline was first incorporated in the spring of 1990, right at the start of a decade that proved to be a golden age for computer automation and the rise of the Personal Computer (PC). It was the start of the Computer Aided Design revolution when forward thinking organisations converted their drawing boards into coffee tables and embraced draughting on a computer. It is no coincidence that we were established at the start of this revolution, initially concentrating on transitioning people’s design skills from the board to the screen. Training users new to computers and CAD had its challenges. Some of our more experienced trainers recall the problems that a surprising number of people had with their first experience with a mouse. It was not uncommon to have to persuade the user that the mouse should stay firmly on the desk rather than on screen in front of them.
We specialised in providing flexible, tailored training course for all levels of ability and, to accommodate the explosion in demand for people wanting to become CAD specialists, we would often deliver training courses during the day, then in the evenings and again at weekends. It would be some years before some other technology players would catch up. Amazon would not be founded for another 4 years; it would be another 7 years before Steve Jobs made his business saving return to Apple whilst Mark Zuckerberg was just about to turn 6 years old.
The last 30 years has seen an incredible, almost mind-blowing level of innovation that has driven transformational change in the workplace. Almost every business is now highly dependent on computing power and the internet. As a result, some well-established jobs have literally become redundant. For example, by the middle of the last decade, almost everyone in a typical office environment had access to their own PC. The need for a person dedicated to typing business letters disappeared. It simply became quicker to type your own letter than dictate it, including having the spelling and grammar checked and a few repeated words swapped for interesting synonyms. Inevitably the ubiquity of email, with its lower standard of language structure, did away with the typing pool and the art of good letter writing.
I continue to be astounded by the torrent of ground-breaking technology that has continued to change our lives over the last three decades, as well as our ability to embrace and adapt it. Here are some of the innovations I remember being a big deal at the time.
The first arguably mainstream 32-bit processor, the i386 had been launched in 1985 and by the beginning of the 90’s i386 PCs had become affordable, just in time for the launch of Microsoft Windows 3.0 and the first version of Microsoft Office. The graphical operating system and the What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) formatting of documents, opened computing to a much wider audience. Microsoft Excel gained popularity throughout the 1990’s, initially with the accounting and finance departments once it received its own graphical interface.
Only computer scientists had heard of the Internet in 1990, but this didn’t stop them launching the first web browser, confusingly called WorldWideWeb. Unfortunately, there was a flaw in their strategy, it would be another year until the first web page was made available.
R11 was the current version of AutoCAD that year. It boasted the new paperspace functionality providing much more control of the printed drawing output, including multiple views of the geometry on one page. Ironically this was also the first release to have concurrent network user functionality. It required a licence protection device known as a dongle, plugged into a port in the back of the computer to operate. The dongle would continue to be used for several years and if it ever went missing you could expect a difficult conversation with your boss.
For the next few years there would be a new release of AutoCAD almost every year. When it’s released, AutoCAD 2021 in 2020 will be R34.
This year, Mosaic, the first widely used web browser was launched and is likely to have started what became known as the dot-com bubble. This was a period where huge numbers of entrepreneurs launched Internet based businesses, often funded by organisations keen to be part of this new technology with its global reach. According to Wikipedia:
In 1993, the release of the Mosaic web browser made access to the World Wide Web possible ….. many investors were eager to invest, at any valuation, in any dot-com company, especially if it had one of the Internet-related prefixes or a ".com" suffix in its name. Venture capital was easy to raise. Investment banks, which profited significantly from initial public offerings (IPO), fuelled speculation and encouraged investment in technology.
When many of these start-up companies failed to realise the promises made in their business plans, investors started to become nervous. As a result, confidence and funding dried up, causing many businesses to sell up or close down. The bubble is widely acknowledged to have well and truly burst by the beginning of the 21st century.
AutoCAD R12 had been released the previous year. It was notable for the BHATCH command which allowed you to hatch irregularly shaped areas.
Yahoo was founded in 1994 and was a pioneer in Internet search. It had become clear that anyone who became dominant in providing search services would have incredible influence on how the internet would be used. Without search, the Internet would have been much less successful, possibly limited to business users or for electronic shop fronts.
Search on the other hand has particularly revolutionised the way that we learn. Not in a structured way but in an ad-hoc, look thinks up just when I need to, way. There is a video channel or a blog or a forum for almost everything, especially software. This on demand access to instructional content plays a part in the uptake of complex applications like AutoCAD. Once we had access to effective Internet search, it enabled us not only to find examples of the possible, but the instructions on how to get there too.
Not a good year for AutoCAD. R13, although feature packed, had a few stability problems. It would be another 3 years before the release of the next version.
Plasma Addressed LCD technology made flat screen televisions possible. This was of interest at the time because during this period we had a division that was authorised to rent copies of AutoCAD along with a powerful workstation. Delivering these workstations complete with 30Kg, 21” CRT monitors to clients in often awkward site offices was back breaking work. Unfortunately, it would be 2006, before the transistors used to create LCD flat screens had progressed to the point that they were feasibly able to be used for computer monitors.
The USB standard was launched and there were high expectations that there would be one cable to unify them all.
Google started working on its BackRub project, a search engine which utilised backlinks in order to rank a sites popularity. It effectively ranked web pages by the number of times it was mentioned or linked to by another web site. A website’s reliability came from how many people linked to that site, and how trustworthy the linking sites were. The principle behind this ranking is still the basis of the Google search results we see today. Google officially launched its search engine in 1998 and there are now an estimated 3.5 billion unique searches made every day.
During the 1990’s, advancements in RF technology meant that wireless networking became much more reliable and affordable.
Charles River Software was started by some of the key developers of PTC's Pro/Engineer 3D solid modelling CAD software. They had an ambition to leverage the parametric functionality that had long been available to mechanical designers, for modelling buildings. The company was renamed Revit Technology Corporation in January 2000. Revit version 1.0 was released on April 5, 2000. Autodesk purchased Revit Technology Corporation for US$133 million in 2002.
Also, in 1997 Nokia 6110, the mobile phone that took advantage of new processor technology brought us the fiendishly difficult snake game at affordable prices. In 2006 Nokia launched the N95, a true smartphone featuring 160MB of RAM, an ahead of its time 5-megapixel camera, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.
The excellent AutoCAD R14 was released this year. It was Windows only and took advantage of new graphics technology to deliver a high-performance experience. A new multiline text editor took the guess work out of formatting paragraph style text.
Netflix was launched as an online DVD rental store in this year, into an already crowded $16BN market, competing against well-established businesses like Blockbuster. DVDs were relatively new and had not yet completely replaced VHS cassettes as the means for renting films. Netflix’s revolutionary initial concept was that the DVD would arrive in the post and when you finished watching the film you popped the DVD disk back into the supplied prepaid envelope and posted back in your own time.
In 1999 it introduced the unlimited monthly subscription concept, shortly after it dropped its original pay per video service in 2000. Arguably, Netflix, by exposing huge numbers of consumers to monthly fees, in return for unlimited specified internet services, tested and then championed the subscription revolution we see everywhere today. Also, in 2000, according to Wikipedia, the leadership at Netflix made one of those era defining decisions:
In 2000, when Netflix had just about 300,000 subscribers and relied on the U.S. Postal Service for the delivery of their DVDs, they were losing money and offered to be acquired by Blockbuster for $50 million. They proposed that Netflix, which would be renamed as Blockbuster.com, would handle the online business, while Blockbuster would take care of the DVDs, making them less dependent on the U.S. Postal Service. The offer was declined
In early 2013, the UK operation of Blockbuster went into administration for the first time with many stores closing. At the end of 2013, they entered the second round of administration process and the remaining stores were closed.
Autodesk released Inventor V1, its brand-new mechanical design modeller was released on September 20th, 1999. It was built from the ground up, based on a different modelling kernel and with a new interface. It differed from its competitors through its close compatibility with AutoCAD and it continues to win market share as more innovative features and services are added.
The Y2K bug: When complicated computer programs were being written during the 1960s through to the 1980s, computer engineers used a two-digit code for the year. It was believed that just after midnight on December 31st, 1999 many computers would interpret the computer date of 00 not as the year 2000, but as a different date in the past or the future, resulting in certain computer failure. Experts predicted that planes would fall from the sky, nuclear power plants would explode, and bank vault doors would spring open spontaneously.
Many IT based businesses found a way to generate revenue from software and services that would mitigate a customer’s risk against the effects of the Y2K bug. Indeed, we sold a software-based remedy which to this day I am unclear on how it worked. Inevitably there were no serious problems that were attributed to the date change and everything continued to work as normal on January 1st 2000. Apart from a Japanese Nuclear power station where the radiation alarm system shut down.
AutoCAD 2000 was launched this year complete with the ability to create email friendly eplots.
Broadband internet became more widely available to consumers and businesses, enabling them to think differently about the Internet. With broadband it became possible to be continuously connected to a burgeoning set of communication services, not least information rich email. The then frustrating and often unreliable dial-up routine had proved to be a barrier to shared internet connectivity. Always on broadband meant that everyone in the organisation could get access to internet services whenever they needed them instead of just the IT guy with the modem plugged into their computer. The email attachment would become the means by which documents, drawings and images were exchanged. It hastened the death of the fax machine, but also the rewriting of staff handbooks as the electronic exchange of inappropriate images in the workplace exploded. By 2007, half of all UK users had access to the Internet through ADSL or leased lines.
AutoCAD 2000i was released with the i signifying improved Internet connectivity and a new eTransmit function.
Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopaedia was established in 2001. It started as a free online English-language encyclopaedia project whose articles were written by experts and reviewed under a formal process. The process for contributing to the article base remains largely unchanged to this day with registered members able to post moderated articles on any subject they wish. Members can contribute to and edit other members articles if they feel that there is an inaccuracy, or that they have additional content. Anyone can become a member and with over 6 million articles Wikipedia continues to be a great example of the altruistic spirit with which the Internet was originally conceived.
AutoCAD 2002 was the current version and new features included the long-awaited associative dimensioning.
In November 2004, Amazon first launched its Amazon Web Services (AWS) for public usage in a very basic form. It relaunched the service with much enhanced storage, message queuing and computing services in 2006. AWS was effectively the foundation of what we know as the cloud today. By providing the computing power in datacentres around the world, developers and service providers were released from the concerns about managing IT infrastructure. The limitations on the complexity and scalability were removed leaving them to concentrate on providing new and innovative services. The flexibility AWS delivers means that huge businesses like Netflix can be run on the platform as easily as a technology start-up. The consumption charging model also means that it is easy for the start-ups to try new ideas whilst keeping cost to a minimum. The rise of AWS and subsequently Microsoft Azure supported the next big waves of innovation - mobile, apps and social media.
YouTube was founded this year by three employees of PayPal. According to Wikipedia one of the three, Jawed Karim claims a rather suspicious motivation for coming up with the idea of the video sharing site.
Karim said the inspiration for YouTube first came from Janet Jackson's role in the 2004 Super Bowl incident, when her breast was exposed during her performance.
The following year Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion in Google stock.
AutoCAD 2006 was released this year with the inclusion of the particularly handy tool palettes.
On June 29th Apple launched the first iPhone along with the revolutionary iOS 1.0, a completely new, mobile first operating system. The iPhone has proved to be one of history’s great pieces of design, looking great and with an impeccable user experience. The 18th iteration was launched towards the end of 2019 with three models; the iPhone 11, the iPhone 11 Pro and the iPhone11 Pro Max. Following shortly afterwards in 2010, Apple launched its iOS-based tablet, the iPad, to mixed critical reception. However, Apple sold more than 3 million iPads in the first three months and by the end of 2019, an estimated 360 million units.
Apple iOS with its App Store, ended our reliance on computers powered by desktop operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and MacOS almost overnight. This paradigm of delivering small bits of functionality, powered by the cloud and directly to a device in our pockets made us think differently about the internet and software in general. There are now reported to be approaching 2 million apps on the iOS App Store.
A little late to the game, Microsoft launched its iOS killer, Windows Phone 7 (why start at 1) in 2010. With Microsoft behind the mobile OS, it was guaranteed to be a long-term success and so I put my full support behind its no nonsense, limited app approach. I enjoyed the restricted functionality which Windows Phone 8 continued to deliver in 2012 and Windows 10 mobile in 2015. In 2017 Microsoft announced, despite acquiring the mobile device division of Nokia, that it was discontinuing the Windows Phone OS, forcing me to switch to Android. Now, of course I can use AutoCAD and Autodesk BIM 360 directly on my phone.
By 2010 reportedly 65 million tweets were posted on Twitter daily, whilst Facebook reached a landmark 500 million users, 350 million of which used their mobile device to access the services. Incredibly, the following year it was estimated that Facebook users had collectively posted 100 billion photos on the platform.
Instagram, the photo and video sharing service popular with fans of amusing cat photos, was launched in 2010 and just two years later was acquired by Facebook.
AutoCAD 2011 was released this year with support for point clouds with up to 2 billion points.
Although originally founded in 2009, this was the year Uber settled on its name for the taxi hailing app. The idea is deceptively simple but has proved to be incredibly disruptive around the world. By connecting passengers to locally available drivers, with the price of the journey agreed in advance and then paid for electronically, all the annoying aspects of ordering a taxi were instantly removed.
The service is disruptive because most towns and cities around the world have long established rules and regulations around carrying paying passengers. Most of these regulations are to protect vulnerable passengers, but often differ between neighbouring towns and cities. In some locations it can be incredibly difficult to obtain a permit to be a taxi driver and it can be the case that large established firms effectively act as a block to newcomers. Pricing is often less than transparent, who hasn’t been baffled by the initial charge that appears on the taxi meter as soon as you get in. Uber delivers the simplicity the modern consumer expects as well as supporting genuine entrepreneurs.
Uber also has that essential ingredient of any successful app, the rating system. According to Wikipedia:
After each journey, drivers are required to rate passengers on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. Passengers are not required to rate the driver, although are encouraged to do so using the same 1 to 5 scale. Riders and drivers who have low ratings can be deactivated. In May 2019, Uber began actively banning riders with low ratings.
The quality of the drivers and the passengers is effectively self-regulated for the good of both parties. Uber is the perfect example of a technology innovation that we didn’t really know we wanted but can no longer live without.
This was the year of AutoCAD 2012 which included associative arrays.
The Model S Tesla was launched this year and with more than 50,000 sold has become one of the world’s most popular all-electric cars. It can be argued that the popularity of Tesla cars has forced the large industry leaders to rethink their strategy on electric power. The Model S is an uncompromisingly practical car with all the same performance and comfort features as its competitors in the executive car market. One of the Tesla key marketing messages is its ability to gather performance information from customer’s cars which is used to develop software updates for the onboard computer that further improve the car’s performance and battery life. This feedback loop will prove to be an incredibly important innovation as we move to a world without fossil fuel powered transport. The health of vehicles like buses can be closely monitored resulting in a much-improved service for commuters.
Oculus VR launched a crowd funding campaign this year to fund the development of its new VR headset. It raised $2.4 million in just 26 hours, far exceeding the $250K target. Facebook acquired the company in 2014 for a reported $2 billion in cash and Facebook shares. The Oculus Rift headset, first consumer model, would not go on sale until 2016.
AutoCAD 2013 launched this year with a new offset command preview taking the guesswork out of which side of the line to click.
The first Amazon Echo smart speaker with its virtual assistant Alexa was launched this year. It epitomises the progress we have made over the last 30 years and how the level of innovation continues to accelerate. As a product it relies on platforms that were in their infancy only a decade earlier; reliable voice recognition, cloud powered artificial intelligence, super-fast broadband and an ecosystem of application developers. In 1990 the intelligent home was a thing of science fiction, who knew that turning the lights off using a switch would become a thing of the past. By making the Echo relatively cheap it meant that everyone could have one and smart speakers have inevitably just become a part of everyone’s lifestyle vocabulary.
Towards the end of the last decade the rate at which new technology innovations were being launched slowed. Many of the products I have talked about here were being refined and improved. The wearable device for example was long established with the highly popular Fitbit wrist-based activity tracker launching in 2008.
However, Apple raised the smart watch bar to a different level completely with the its Apple Watch Series 4. The focus moved from being able to answer a phone call on your watch to delivering features that helped keep you healthy. Alongside the standard step counter, it had a sophisticated heart monitor and fall detection. If the Apple Watch detected a hard fall it checked if you were still moving, if you were not, it would automatically call the emergency services and audibly tell them that your Apple Watch had detected a hard fall. It would then proceed to share your current location as latitude and longitude coordinates.
The ECG monitor, though not officially capable of detecting a potential heart attack, did provide you enough detail to make you paranoid about whether your heart rate was normal or not.
When AutoCAD 2019 was launched this year, it came with the very clever new drawing compare feature. The feature allows you to compare two different versions of the same drawing and highlight the differences. Now there is nowhere to hide for the user that insists on exploding dimensions.
There have, of course, been many more technology advancements over this period, some of them lifesaving. The Internet, artificial intelligence and big data will continue to fuel progress in everything from healthcare, to transport, to energy consumption and every other aspect of our lives. If we see half the number of new innovations in the next 30 years as we have in the last, then the future is looking bright. To find out more about my predictions for the technology trends for the year ahead, look at the blog below.
For the nostalgic amongst you, Shaun Hurley, Autodesk Insider and prolific blogger has kindly released this early training cassette for AutoCAD.