Intro: Autodesk Acquires Instructables: What It Means for Makers
This my article I just posted on MAKE "Autodesk Acquires Instructables: What It Means for Makers"
The big news this week was “Autodesk Acquires Instructables.” It’s taken me a few days of really thinking about this for my column. Autodesk is jumping in to the biggest DIY community online — it’s a huge risk, with a likely even bigger reward. I think Autodesk knows how to make a thriving business for professionals, but what about makers? That’s what this week’s Soapbox is about: Autodesk acquiring Instructables and what it means for makers.
Step 1: Let's Get This Out of the Way: Ads! Pro! Steps!
Instructables is ad supported — there are ads, lots of them. Sponsored contests, too. This was all before the acquisition. Needing to log in to see all steps, PDF downloads, less ads? This requires a pro membership (starting at $1.95/month). Instructables did this during the advertising downturn in 2008/2009 when the site needed to generate revenue to pay people and staff. At the time, it was the biggest controversy, and commenters claimed it would be the end of the site in six months. That didn’t happen — the site only got bigger. They survived. I wanted to mention this first because these are things before they were acquired by Autodesk. Usually “more ads” and “more ways to make money” happen after an acquisition.
Instructabliss is a site that I’ve seen posted a few times; it loads pages from Instructables and puts all the different pages on one single page. It also handles things like logging in so you can view everything. I don’t use it since I don’t know how or if my log in would be stored on another site. As Instructables gets more resources to hire, we might see UI changes and better browsing experiences.
For my viewing, I use an ad blocker like many people do for many sites. I have a pro membership because I’ve used it for work. I always wanted a version of Instructables I could download and run on my server like you can with WordPress. I would still like to pay for a package that lets me run my own Instructables on the sites I work on. I think that’s not likely now, but I’ll talk about this later in the article. As far as charging money for anything or having ads, many people do not like that MAKE has ads, or has a print magazine that costs money to subscribe to and that we charge most attendees money for tickets to Maker Faire.
I also know some “experts” don’t like many of the basic, simple, or in their words “just plain wrong” projects on Instructables. Again, this is all before Autodesk bought them earlier this week. Not every project is a winner. I understand some of the projects aren’t that great. If I was 10 years old now, I’d post some stuff too that experts would hate on, but that’s the nature of the site when you have this many people sharing. Instructables recently added a lot of editorial staff to make the site better, pushing the good content out more. Again, this was pre-Autodesk.
I wanted to spend time talking about this because I don’t want the comments here to have the same things I mentioned here (Ads! Pro accounts! All the steps!). Or Revit vs AutoCAD vs MicroStation. This article is about what this acquisition means for makers, and for Autodesk. This is about the future. If you have specific things you’d like to see Instructables do or change, post on their site, where they’ve asked for this. Please stay on topic here on MAKE! What will this mean for makers?
OK, let’s get going…
Step 2: It's Not About Revenue for Autodesk
Instructables is a tiny drop in the bucket for Autodesk. Autodesk FY10 revenues were $1.7 billion (business by geography: Americas = 38%, Europe = 39%, Asia/Pacific = 23%). I don’t know the exact revenue of Instrucables but since everyone knows industry ad rates for the most part, it’s likely a few million a year, mostly from online advertising (Google AdSense, pro memberships, and direct ad sales). It’s not going to be a revenue stream for Autodesk.
Step 3: It's Not About the Instructables Members or Web Traffic
Instructables has about 2 million members and about 50M pageviews per month. That’s a juicy chunk of traffic, but Autodesk doesn’t run a single ad-supported site, they don’t have ad sales teams, and Autodesk didn’t buy Instructables to compete in a race-to-the-bottom for advertising dollars and CPMs. Autodesk isn’t going to be Huffington Post or Gawker. What does Autodesk have?
Autodesk has 10+ million users globally.
800,000 companies use their software.
1.2 million future designer professionals trained each year.
Autodesk software is used in more than 50,000 educational institutions worldwide.
More than 2 million students are trained on Autodesk products each year.
17 million downloads of DWF Viewer.
But, they don’t have a community around all these people (and the specific tools) like Instructables has (more on that later).
Step 4: Does Autodesk Know What They Bought?
Here’s Carl Bass, Autodesk’s CEO at the Wired business conference, being interviewed by Chris Anderson, who runs an open source hardware company, DIY Drones (see the stars all aligning lately?). Chris is also the editor of Wired magazine. Full video here. If you watch the whole video you’ll hear Carl specifically talking about the maker world.
Bass also told Wired.com, in an interview after his appearance at the conference, “One of the things that we’re seeing is that technology is increasingly starting with consumers, and then moving up into business” (more here).
Can you make one of something? Can you make many of something? How, with what tools? How do you “start”? How do you capture images from reality and quickly make them as real objects. Carl shows that he took a few photos of Chris and then made a laser cut cardboard head. This is all using a free tool Autodesk released.
They are moving towards making any digital camera into a 3D scanner. This is exactly where things are heading (no pun intended). If you look at sites like Instructables and Thingiverse, this is happening now. Autodesk needs to be in this game or they’ll end up completely unable to compete for the attention and “trial” for their tool sets. Carl said “the history of design is building upon others’ ideas” and there is “an unbelievable community of people who want to be making things.”
Here’s the app Autodesk Project Photofly, a free download. From the site: “Capturing the reality as-built for various purposes (renovation, rapid energy analysis, add-on design, historic preservation, game development, visual effects, fun, etc.) is now possible using your standard point and shoot digital camera thanks to advanced computer vision technologies made available through Project Photofly.” Gallery here.
So I think Autodesk gets what they bought, at least the CEO does. It’s only my guess, but he’s a maker, and just like Chris Anderson, he has a day job. If Carl Bass wasn’t out there talking about this now in this way, I would be the first to ask where he was and what he is thinking about in this space. I’d want a video to hear him talk about this like he knows what’s going on. I think he does — the full video sounds like what many makers talk about.
Step 5: Why Autodesk Bought Instructables in One Sentence
Here’s a quote from the Instructables community blog. I’m surprised none of the comments or even the tech press picked up on this — this sums it up.
Instructables will be the community arm of the same team that makes 123D, SketchBook, Homestyler, and Pixlr, which will help provide creative tools, inspiration, and services for all types of creative people.
The leadership team at Instructables is not going to be sitting around getting marching orders from Autodesk on how to change Instructables — it’s likely going to be the reverse: the Instructables team will be trying to bring the magic touch to 123D, SketchBook, Homestyler, and Pixlr. Eric Wilhelm, the CEO of Instructables, is now the Director of Community at Autodesk. As per the press release(s), the Instructables brand is staying, they’ll get some more resources to improve the site, and it will not be a depot of Autodesk product manuals. Pictured above, the people who run Instructables. Indoor climbing walls, elf ears, three armed babies — this is the DNA that is about to get infused with Autodesk. What will happen? Something weird, for sure.
But, this is Autodesk’s big bet. They want millions of people creating and sharing using their free tools (and other tools). Autodesk wants to go from a “what” company (software) to “how and why” (making and sharing). What’s that worth to Autodesk? Millions of dollars and the need to acquire the team at Instructables to lead the way. The want to fast track new tools, they want to get us going fast, and maybe sell us something later when we outgrow free or when we need to pay for the “its” we made with the bits (3D printing). Autodesk likely wants to celebrate people more, makers, the heros who make things. Instructables does this, and MAKE does this. It’s what almost every company wants: passionate communities!
Step 6: The Future of Autodesk Is Lots of Free
I think we’re going to see Autodesk slice off more features and web-ize many of their tools. They’ll have lots of free ways to experiment. How do I know for sure? Here’s something Autodesk just released a few weeks ago.
Autodesk 123D public beta…
123D is a free solid modeling software program based on the same Autodesk technology used by millions of designers and engineers worldwide. Not an engineer? No problem, with Autodesk 123D you can design precise and makeable objects using smart tools that let you start with simple shapes and then edit and then tweak them into more complex shapes. Who doesn’t love free stuff? You have access to tons of free models to help you get your project started, finished, or just to use in exploring ideas. Access free content either directly from the search box in the software, or from the “Get Content” section of the 123D site. The 123D site is a central home for getting things made, and that includes giving you info on different personal fabrication options, and centralized access to our partners who can help you with the tools you need to do the work yourself, or can fabricate your design for you.
Download their free app, make stuff, use a service partner to print it out in 3D. What’s missing is a giant community like Instructables bolted onto this site that will create ways to make things, share tips, write how-tos, share results, create new products from their 3D works, and more.
Autodesk knows how to work with professionals, I think that’s clear. They need to learn how to work with non-profressionals, with new makers, with the giant emerging hobbyist market. This is why they bought Instructables.
I tried to scope out all the communities that Autodesk has for some of their latest tools they’re trying to promote. It’s scattered, confusing, and there’s not tons of activity, certainly not as much as Instructables gets. Here’s a few I think will end up getting attention from the team at Instructables.
123D (above, makes sense to have Instructables-like community around this one).
Step 7: SketchBook
SketchBook. I have this for my iPad — it’s OK, you can share on Flickr. Currently there are about 2,000 members. There’s a community/blog site http://www.sketchbooknews.com/, but it’s really hard to find. There are PDF how-tos, but no step-by-steps or something that quickly got me going.
Step 8: Homestyler
Homestyler — “online home design software brings your interior design plans to life. Easy drag and drop, brand name products, and 3D views make using Autodesk Homestyler the best way to start your next home design project. It’s free*, completely web-based, and instantly accessible online. *Autodesk Homestyler is a free online service that provides access to home design software created by Autodesk.”
The share, support, and community parts seem really empty to me.
Step 9: Pixlr
Pixlr — “Pixlr is the creator of online cloud-based image tools and utilities. Today we have three applications in our suite: Pixlr Editor, Pixlr Express and Pixlr-o-matic. They are built in Flash and you need to have the Flash plug-in (get Flash) to get it to work, however, 98% of all computers have Flash so you are probably set. We also provide screengrabbing tools Pixlr Grabber and one click photo sharing imm.io. Pixlr is now part of Autodesk, a global leader in innovative design software and services.”
I think a quick online image editor is needed for any how-to site for annotations, etc. Maybe that’s the plan to use across all the Autodesk offers. Pixlr is one of the most intense Flash sites I’ve seen — it’s a mini-Photoshop app all online, but until recently, I’ve never heard of it or seen it used on other sites.
Anyway, my take on these is that Autodesk is playing around with smaller subsets of commercial tools they offer to see what happens, and for some of their properties they just don’t have the oomph to get tons of people using them in the same way people are using Instructables.
Step 10: When Yahoo Bought Flickr
A little detour. As I was thinking about the Instructables acquisition, I was trying to recall any site that was ad supported, with pro accounts and a thriving community. I think Flickr is the only one that’s pretty close, with people uploading their own content (I even used Flickr for how-tos), and eventually a larger company acquired them. But with Yahoo, it was more of an offensive or defensive land grab as Google, Microsoft, and others were all buying as many companies as they could to “own a space.” Yahoo wasn’t a camera company, or an image tool company (like Adobe), they were a search company and an ad company. The CEO never, from what I recalled, talked publicly about the future of sharing images. Flickr got better uptime, more ways to log in, and that was about it. The core team left fairly soon after the sale, and I think it’s generally thought in tech circles that Yahoo is on its way out.
Yahoo didn’t take the DNA from Flickr and improve their other properties; in fact properties like del.icio.us were never maximized or integrated, and now “sun-setted.” I would say that Autodesk has Yahoo as a good example of what not to do. Yahoo did a pretty good job of leaving Flickr mostly alone, but Flickr didn’t change Yahoo. That’s a shame, really.
Step 11: What Does It Mean for Makers?
I spent a lot of time researching Autodesk to really understand what they’re doing, or at least trying to do. I didn’t see any of the tech press or any of the drive-by comments on various sites really dig in. While it would be easy to say, “Oh, expensive software for pros, they just wanted the Instructable members to sell them Autodesk!” I really wanted to map out what I think they’re going to do with the Instructables DNA. I think I did that, but it doesn’t matter if I did. What does this all mean to makers here and for the ones on Instructables, the largest “DIY community” online? A few things.
The maker community is valuable, so are the people who can help inspire and foster giant communities. Companies who make tools need to figure out ways to work in the community. It’s more than just have a Facebook fan page to “like.” The value of a maker community just went up. When Autodesk buys a site like Instructables, it makes all of maker communities more valuable and interesting to companies, tools makers, and everyone else. If you can manage a site like Instructables, you are valuable. If you can contribute amazing how-tos to a site like Instructables, you’re more valuable than ever.
Years ago, after I founded Hack-a-Day and later left to work on MAKE, the “blog network” Hack-a-Day was part of was sold to AOL. I was told AOL wanted to steer clear of any mention of “hack” and here we are in 2011: Autodesk is fully embracing “hack.”
Next up, something you’ll hear a lot: the “Industrialization of the Maker Movement.” Here’s a quote from Chris Anderson (DIY Drones):
More big news in the continuing industrialization of the maker movement: Autodesk has bought Instructables. What you can now see emerging are several vertically-integrated “making chains,” which go from authoring tools to design houses to service bureaus to communities to 3D printers–all aimed at the new consumer/maker side of the business.
Here are the two biggest players with some examples of their lineups, including recent acquisitions and investments:
3D Systems: Alibra (authoring), Freedom of Creation (design), 3Dproparts (service bureau) the RapMan 3D printer. No big community site yet.
Autodesk: 123D (authoring), Ponoko/Techshop (service bureau), Instructables (community). Lots of design strength already in part due to big Hollywood/game presence with their Maya and Alias product ecosystems. Haven’t bought a 3D printer company yet (it’s interesting to think what they could do with Makerbot).
Others in the wings include PTC and Dassault. Both have been focused on professional design and engineering, but are starting to move into the consumer space, too. (PTC just released the free Cleo Elements authoring tool, for example, and Dassault owns Solidworks, which is a leader in this space but doesn’t have a really free consumer option yet).
Big companies are starting to find value in the consumer space, and the maker space. For these companies to succeed, they’ll need to be more like us, not the other way around. I’ve previously talked about big companies wanting a piece of the Arduino pie. In order for TI, MicroChip, Microsoft, and others to do so they need to: release open source hardware, provide open source tools, create value, allow others to create value. If you want to make an Arduino killer, you need to at least provide what the Arduino does — a lot of that is being 100% open source. So for makers, you can expect more companies like Autodesk or whoever to need to release more open products if they want to join the maker movement. We’ll use them and we’ll provide value back.
For makers, this acquisition is another sign of the growth and vitality of the maker/DIY market segment. We can all take some credit for the success of Instructables in creating and shaping this market opportunity. Autodesk is now part of the maker community — this is amazing: billion dollar companies value what we do. That’s right, if Autodesk pulls this off, every company that competes with them will need to be able to deal with giant maker communities too. This is good for all of us: better (open tools), more open licenses, more sharing. Why? Because they’ll need to, and many will want to!
For makers, other companies will do a lot more for us. Autodesk’s competitors will take notice — they’ll want to provide support for us as well. Google SketchUp (if it’s still considered important at Google) and SolidWorks may be wondering what they should do now, and who they should buy. MakerBot? Thingiverse? Others in software and services beyond the CAD market will also pay attention with new interest. Ponoko and TechShop are partners with Autodesk on the service side, but this could impact other service bureaus. New partnerships may emerge as the market re-aligns. In the end, more companies competing for makers.
Some makers will just not like this acquisition and compete! Maybe they don’t like Autodesk, or maybe they only want independent sites. Whatever it is, there will be makers who might make their own how-to sharing sites. This is good — it will push the current players to make improvements and it’s 100% possible something bigger and better could come along compared to Instructables. There aren’t enough how-to sites yet — there’s room for more. This is good for makers. I still want to run my own how-to site that spits out standardize XML in a how-to format. Maybe we are one step closer.
More players at the table. I’m sure the folks at iFixit were thrilled that Autodesk bought Instructables, iFixit’s value just shot up. For Make: Projects (which uses the iFixit backend) this means MAKE can promote the Make: Projects site even more as a community site in addition to a content site. I’m excited to see more projects on MAKE that come from Make: Projects. Advertisers might want to spend more on how-to sites, all very possible.
How-tos may finally get standardized. If more how-to and learning sites are competing, makers will want to bring their projects to whatever site they want. That’s nearly impossible now. Wikis are OK for text, Flickr is OK for photos, but there isn’t an agreed-upon standard that all how-to sites publish to so you can just click “export my how-to” and then go to another site and click “import my how-to” with all the steps and photos and everything else in a logical way. It’s lots of work and it’s why there’s an informal lock-in when you publish a how-to. I still use HTML for many tutorials with a wiki at the most because I think we’re going to have something standard very soon. Besides, the world is going more mobile. If you can standardize for online, you can display it on tablets, phones, whatever. So for makers, I think we’ll see an effort towards how-to portability. The gang from iFixit is working on this, and you can read more about it here: oManual.
Step 12: It's Your Turn: What Does It Mean to You?
Do you consider yourself a maker? Have you posted projects on Instructables? Over the years we’ve all grown up with many maker sites, we put in our projects (which are just pieces of us), and we’ve watched them thrive and change. And now Instructables is part of a bigger company. The maker world is watching Autodesk closely. What they do will be an example, good or bad. So what does this mean to you?
I’m going to close with one last quote from Tim Carmody (scroll down to see all the comments from Google+):
It’s fascinating; on the one hand, we’re seeing hardware-building tools become easier to use, more broadly distributed, more democratic. On the other hand, that broader base is helping to create successful companies, which in turn is attracting interest from bigger fish. It’s like the whole software-coding/personal computing revolution is playing out again.
Think about that — look how far the computing revolution got us in just a few decades. Imagine what you’ll be able to do as a maker 20 years from now. Imagine a world of all the tool makers competing to make it better and easier for us to make things. What does Autodesk acquiring Instructables mean to makers? I think making things is only going to get better for all of us.