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Autodesk and Alias Unite: What Happens Next?

With Autodesks surprise acquisition of Alias last week, Bill Desowitz speaks with three of the principals to find out what this means for the companies and the 3D industry as a whole.

Last week, Autodesk surprised everyone with its acquisition of Alias for $182 million in cash. Find out what this partnership will mean for them and the 3D industry, as VFXWorlds editor Bill Desowitz speaks with Autodesks Marc Petit (vp of product development and operations at the Media & Ent. division) and Alias Doug Walker (president/ceo), and then separately with Autodesks Carl Bass (coo).

Bill Desowitz: How did the acquisition come about and why?

Marc Petit: At Autodesk, were always on the lookout for a good acquisition to grow our business. And Alias is very close to our core when it comes to product and talented teams. More specifically, the rebranding back in February signaled the commitment of Autodesk to the media and entertainment space. When we looked at the market, we were approaching the end of the retooling of the games pipeline and the market position had not changed. And that speaks to some level of entrenchment, and the fact that the customers pick up the different packages for very good reasons installed bases and trained personnel, so we saw the opportunity to start leveraging the actual complementary [aspects] of the two packages instead of being in full-frontal competition. So thats where the market was pointing and how we came to initiate this alliance. It was really rooted in what we heard from our customers about the complementary packages and lack of motivation to switch from one to the next.

Alias Doug Walker was looking for an acquirer and found that Autodesk offered complementary technologies and marketplaces.

Doug Walker: Certainly from our perspective at Alias, we were not in the process of looking for an acquirer. That said, when Autodesk approached us, obviously they were very serious and the kinds of things that Marc talked about in terms of complementary technologies, complementary marketplaces, really led us to a position where we believed that by combining operations we could offer more value to customers, And so on the design side of things, Alias has a set of products called Studio Tools, which are used for conceptual design, aesthetic design every car company in the world uses these two tools to design their cars and many of the major consumer products companies. That overlaps very nicely with Autodesks products in solids modeling, specifically AutoCAD but also Inventor for solids 3D modeling. So now customers really have an opportunity and this has actually never happened in the history of the industry to build products right from conceptual design through to the solids modeling and factory floor types of applications and have an integrated pipeline. So on the design side of the business a tremendous amount of ability to share technology. Also, in design, designers are looking for visualization in a number of different kinds of applications that can create value for them, specifically in the marketing area, where theyre taking their 3D designs that are built in our software or in Inventor and repurposing them for magazines or animations for commercials or for interactive experiences and we have a suite of technology that can help with that.

On the entertainment side, we got very excited because, of course, Autodesk has a series of editing, compositing and effects tools that we think we can integrate nicely with Maya over time, and, with Max, were committed to both products for a very long time, but were also committed, as a part of this transaction, to building a bridge between those products so that the customers that actually use both in the same pipeline and this happens mostly in games can use them together more effectively.

BD: Do you see them all becoming one large package in the future?

DW: Right now our commitment to the marketplace categorically is to keep the products separate. Whats interesting is that Maya is growing very rapidly but so is Max, so there is a group of customers that has chosen each set of technology, and it would be kind of crazy from a pure business perspective to say that we wanted to bring those technologies together. The other thing is that they offer two different value sets. Certainly, where we see the products overlap the most, which is in the games marketplace, Max is very strong at level editing and at world building, whereas Maya is positioned more in the character modeling animation side of things and previsualization, so were certainly not going to bring the products together, but we certainly will build bridges between the products to make them interoperate more effectively. And I would add MotionBuilder as being a part of this bridge.

BD: And there is great opportunity for visual effects.

MP: Everywhere you turn in the high-end [visual effects] industry, you are very likely to see Maya. And, of course, having Flame, Lustre, Smoke, Toxik and Maya work together as an integrated pipeline will bring tremendous value to [those customers]. When we introduced Toxik [the collaborative compositing suite] at NAB, we saw a lot of opportunities for people to actually adopt a Maya/Toxik pipeline as their core production tools. And we can solve some hard production problems like color space management. A lot of our Flame and Lustre customers are Maya users and being able to help them drive a lot more efficiencies out of those systems is a winning proposition for us.

For Marc Petit of Autodesk, the alliance was formed when customers talked about the complementary aspects of the two companies packages and their lack of motivation to switch from one to the next.

BD: What about handling redundancies?

MP: From a global perspective, there are bound to be redundancies on the operational side. Its hard to quantify at this moment. But you can see that Alias has a global presence with subsidiaries in every country and Autodesk has the same global presence, so right there we can see some possible consolidation of offices and efficiencies.

DW: Certainly one of the things that both sides are working on right now is building integration teams. So a big part of the role for those teams will be to help develop a strategy thats going to carry the combined organization forward. And organizational strategy will follow business strategies. So well expect that part of that work can be done prior to the close [four to six months depending on final regulatory approvals], and theres work that will have to be done after the close.

BD: And after the close?

DW: There will be the benefits of bringing the organization into the Autodesk family and being part of a much larger organization. Obviously our customers come first, so they will be a key part of our business strategy.

BD: What regions will now be strengthened as a result of the alliance?

DW: If you take a look at the total reach that Autodesk has, it is one of the things that I think can significantly impact how to bring our product to market. Today, Autodesk has over 1,200 resellers and so that will certainly be beneficial in bringing new value to our customers. And Id say specifically in Asia Pacific Autodesk has a much more significant presence than what we have at this time, so in that area of the world we can expect to benefit.

MP: Well, there are certainly opportunities to build new solutions and new functions within the industry. By further investing in FBX and products like MotionBuilder, we have a good chance as well to get these products to new markets or new issues within the market like work flow management.

BD: What are the benefits on the design side?

Carl Bass, coo of Autodesk, is excited about the connection between his companys manufacturing portfolio and Alias products. Customers will now have better interoperability among the tools in their pipeline.

Carl Bass: The design side is really important because up until now most industrial design, whether its automotive or coffee pots or whatever, theres this big discontinuity between design and engineering. It goes into a tool and then it often gets turned into a clay model or physical prototype. And then when they start engineering it, they start all over again. Theres no good reason with todays technology that you shouldnt be able to use that information and move it back and forth between the designers and engineers. So we think its important to have the conceptual and industrial design at the beginning of the process. Almost every major automotive company, aerospace company and lots of consumer product companies use Studio Tools and were excited about the connection we can make to the rest of our manufacturing portfolio. [One] thing that we like [on the entertainment side] is that Maya runs on more platforms than ours Max is a Windows application and so being able to have the Mac and Linux is important to us. We think this broadens the market and helps our customers solve problems by having better interoperability among the tools in their pipeline.

Another important thing weve done on the design side of the business is we introduce products for data and asset management, and we have a product called The Vault [thats been introduced to 3ds Max 8], and the same thing will be true for Maya. We did it because we thought it would be a future thing for our customers, but its gotten a much bigger response. As Ive talked to large studios, one of their big problems is managing their data and assets this is another area of cross-pollination between the two sides of the business and Vault is definitely in our plan [to address this].

BD: What else do you see happening in the 3D world?

CB: Over the next couple of years, we believe two things are going to happen in the convergence of design and entertainment. More and more content is going to be created with design tools you know, the typical CAD tools. Because they become so specialized, you can make a machine or model a building much quicker using purpose built tools than you can in the generic modelers like Max and Maya. So, increasingly, were seeing car bodies or buildings created with design tools and then being used in entertainment, in animation. Sometimes its for pure entertainment like a movie or a cityscape in a game. Other times, we see people who want to take their designs and animate them, put people in them, put crowds in them, [add] visual effects the wind blowing across the pond as the water drops in a much more realistic way to present an architectural environment to a client rather than just a static image.

I cant tell you the number of young architectural clients that want to navigate through 3D space like in their Xbox. So I think theres a fair amount of overlap and convergence that will happen over the next couple of years, where the technology on one side of the business is already desired and will become a realistic part of how these people work on the other side of the business.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.