“Autodesk Arrogance”     Whither AutoCAD?

Why Molecular Modeling?

In early 1990, Autodesk was evaluating HyperChem, a Microsoft Windows-based molecular modeling package developed by Hypercube, Inc. (Details on how Autodesk and Hypercube were introduced may be found on page [Ref].) Technical evaluation of the product quickly established that the product was scientifically correct, well-built, and provided unprecedented ease-of-use for a molecular modeler. The biggest question in the minds of Autodesk management was whether the molecular modeling market was big enough to justify the effort, and if it made sense to get involved in a product so technically complicated, computationally intense, and specialised. The following is an advocacy piece I wrote which argues that every single one of the present doubts about HyperChem could have been raised in 1982 against AutoCAD. On August 17, 1990 Autodesk made an investment in Hypercube and obtained exclusive distribution rights to HyperChem; the product shipped on March 30, 1992. In January 1994, the Scientific Modeling Division was disbanded and the distribution of the product terminated.

Why Molecular Modeling?

by John Walker
March 7th, 1990

As we proceed with evaluation of a possible business relationship with Hypercube, I'd like to briefly discuss the most fundamental question, “Why should Autodesk get involved in molecular modeling?” Agreement with the reasons I'll describe below and with the conclusion that we should enter that market when an attractive opportunity to do so appears does not necessarily mean we should conclude a relationship with Hypercube; that specific decision must hinge on our evaluation of that company and its principals, products, and strategy. But conversely, if you conclude that molecular modeling is a hopelessly narrow, arcane, and hard-to-sell niche market, there's no reason to waste any time evaluating the particulars of Hypercube.

One of the major tasks I had set for myself in the early part of this year was to write a paper that laid out my view of the currently emerging technologies in which Autodesk could become involved with relatively little investment or risk, and which were consistent with the overall direction of the company and the businesses in which we do well. I had scheduled a Technology Forum for January 27th titled, “What Next: The Coming Revolution In Manufacturing” to discuss just these items.[Footnote] Unfortunately, the recent spate of alarums and diversions has pushed that task further and further back in the queue, necessitating the somewhat sketchy arguments presented below. In any case, things are happening in this area much, much faster than I or many of the most voluble visionaries in the field had expected only a few months ago. I have been accumulating a file of clippings to circulate with the paper, should I ever finish it, and it seems like every week's Science and Nature contain increasing quantities of relevant material.

I believe that molecular modeling passes the two key tests I look for in evaluating any potential new product area. These filters are the same I applied when screening initial product ideas for Autodesk, and the fact that AutoCAD met these criteria was one of the reasons I strongly supported it as a product for Autodesk.

Filter 1: It stands to benefit from increasing compute power

The safest bet in the world is that computing power will continue to grow at an exponential rate while costs stay constant or fall. There is simply no technological barrier on the horizon to stop this process, and market forces are inexorably driving the evolution of technology in this direction. The best way for a software vendor to profit from this is to choose a problem domain that has demonstrated its worth on large computer systems, then repackage that tool for a much broader market, anticipating the arrival of low-cost, mass-market computers that will allow it to be used practically.

This is precisely what we did with AutoCAD, and we knew exactly what we were doing at the time. By choosing a product on the edge of currently available compute power, you avoid jumping into a heavily contested market. Instead, you can start the process of market development on the margin, among education and other users able to use the product on existing machines, putting the infrastructure in place so that when machines really suited to the product begin to arrive you're in an unassailable position of strength.

Actually, with AutoCAD, we thought the PC/XT was the machine that would make CAD real on the desktop but we were wrong. Looking back on what really happened, the whole XT era was precisely the time of market-building I described above. When the AT came out, serious practical work with desktop CAD was truly possible, and we simply rode the wave we were already perfectly positioned on.

In looking forward and choosing new products, we should be seeking products with the same properties; products which run on large computers which are useful enough that a small segment of the market able to afford such machines pays the price of admission, but which will be applicable to a much broader set of users when the price falls to a level they can pay. This is a property of many of Autodesk's current development directions: photorealistic rendering, solid modeling, finite element analysis, and 3D user interaction.[Footnote] Molecular modeling has the capacity, like CAD, to soak up all the additional computing power anticipated for the next decade, and in the process, expand the market for computational chemistry just as AutoCAD has done for CAD.

Filter 2: It is central to emerging technologies

While one can unquestionably expand a market by simply lowering the price, ideally we should look for products in markets which themselves are expected to grow rapidly. CAD and multi-media are two such markets in which we're currently positioned, and I believe that molecular modeling is one of the key enabling technologies of events about to unfold which may dwarf either of those markets. CAD, for example, is the key enabling technology for most of the changes underway in manufacturing and automation. It stands to reason that as those technologies expand from their initial small and expensive base, CAD will penetrate a much wider market. Indeed, this has happened. I think that much the same is true of molecular modeling.

First, let's step back from this “computational chemistry” stuff (which can't help but conjure up the thought of strange and pungent odours emerging from your floppy disc slot) and recall that molecular modeling is really nothing but mechanical CAD at the atomic level. What you do with such a system is assemble a part atom by atom, using all the normal CAD-like commands, view the model, then perform various kinds of analysis upon the model to study and predict its behaviour.

Working with atoms and quantum mechanics is a whole lot different than machined metal and Newton's laws, but what you're doing in the overall design cycle with such a system isn't all that different from the way an MCAE user exploits solid modeling, FEM, and postprocessing.

If molecular modeling seems intractably difficult computationally and arcane in its terminology, much the same could have been said 10 or 15 years ago about finite element analysis of nonlinear materials with integrated computation of mechanical and thermal properties. Today, that technology is being used to design tires for your car.

The reason we should be interested in “atomic CAD” is that, sooner or later, it's going to be the most explosively growing segment of the CAD business. Ever since the 1950's we've been making stuff smaller and smaller. Eventually this will end; when you hit the level of atoms, you can't go any further (this assertion may seem glib, but the argument in favour of it is very strong, but irrelevant to this discussion). But when you hit the atomic level, physics, chemistry, and engineering become unified into a single coherent field yet to be named “Molecular Engineering.” This will simply sweep chemistry, the study of atomic interactions, into the unification of solid state physics and engineering that has already occurred in the development of semiconductor device technology.

In talking about “hitting the level of atoms” I am not envisioning some far-out event in the mists of the twenty-first century. Several current technological developments such as the scanning tunneling microscope, the atomic force microscope, quantum well transistors, molecular optical memories, and protein engineering, all subjects of well-funded and aggressive research programs at places like IBM, DuPont, Bell Labs, and Texas Instruments, are already reaching this level. The journal Science inaugurated their new series of survey articles, “Science in the 1990s” with a review of atomic-level technologies and predicted the consequences would be at the heart of many scientific and technological developments in the next 10 years. When this really begins to roll, being positioned as a leader in atomic level CAD is going to be worth a great deal, indeed.[Footnote]

But there's no need to lose money until this happens, or even if it never does. The beauty of molecular modeling is that it is already a viable business, one in which we can apply all the same strategies of penetrating education, broadening the market, and riding the curve of increased hardware power just as we did with AutoCAD. Every step we take, and every success we have in this developmental period will just put us in a better position for the time when molecular engineering explodes into exponential growth in the manner integrated circuits and microprocessors did in the 1970s and 1980s. And if it never happens, then we'll still be at the centre of the rapidly growing biotechnology market, where molecular modeling is already essential.


I believe molecular modeling represents a major opportunity for Autodesk. It seems to share many of the same properties that contributed to the success of AutoCAD, and to be at a stage of market development similar to desktop CAD at the time of AutoCAD's introduction. Whether the present opportunity proves attractive under closer scrutiny or not, we should continue to seek ways to position ourselves in this market.

“Autodesk Arrogance”     Whither AutoCAD?