Autodesk buys Instructables? Wait a moment...

update 2011/08/02: please see comment by TIm O’Reilly at the end of the post

Instructables is a web-based service created to “enable open-source hardware by [allowing] users to collaboratively design, document, build, and market their ideas”. Instructables was just acquired by Autodesk, the world leader in 3D design and engineering software. Autodesk believes that this move “will assist makers of all types by linking Instructables' vibrant online community to Autodesk software tools and services”. Autodesk is a “great cultural fit for Instructables”, says Eric Wilhelm, founder and CEO of Instructables.

Bryce Roberts is happy because this acquisition would mean that the Maker movement is going mainstream.

Me, I’m not happy yet. I’ll wait to know more about how this will develop. Because my first gut reaction at these news, which of course I hope will be proved wrong, is that they may not be good news.

Here’s why (this is from slides 22/24 of my seminar on the economics and cultural impacts of file formats):

AutoCAD is found in 85% of the businesses and schools that design, document and manufacture.. it is used in architecture, interior design, shop fit-outs, construction, engineering, landscape design, product design and manufacture, naval and aeronautical design, piping and cabling…

In the 1990’s, more than two billions private and public projects (mechanical parts, furniture, buildings, bridges…) were already stored in the DWG file format of AutoCAD. What’s the number today? Surely bigger.

Why is this an issue? Because the AutoCAD DWG and DXF formats have an history of changing with every new release and of being extremely complex, to the point that only AutoDesk’s own software can handle them perfectly well.

The Autodesk press release says that (bold markup is mine): “As a result of this acquisition, Autodesk will host a unique ecosystem that combines inspiration, accessible 3D software tools and fabrication services so anyone can be empowered to express themselves creatively."

Wait a second!

“Hosting a unique ecosystem that combines inspiration and services so anyone can be empowered to express themselves creatively?” A sentence like this would have been a fitting mission statement, when it was launched, for Facebook: you know, the company that today many people would love to leave but can’t, because it locked all their data while those people weren’t paying attention.

The new home for the community of open-source hardware, open sharing and collaborative design is being built and controlled by a company with a consistent history of locking the work of its users in extremely complex, proprietary file formats?

Freeing CAD designs after they’ve been locked in proprietary formats or clouds is much harder than freeing contact lists and statuses. I see a lot of obvious potential value (and temptation) for Autodesk in this deal. I also see, however, lots of reasons for the Instructables community to look at it very closely, in order to avoid any possibility of Facebook-like lock-in. Of course, this is a worst-case scenario and it is certainly possible that such a risk doesn’t exist in this case. However, from what I can read around now, this is the side of the deal that should get more attention.

Yesterday, I asked Tim O’Reilly: “I see you’re happy because of this acquisition. Are you sure that there is no risk of Facebook-like lock-in, just worse, in this deal?"

here is his reassuring answer: “Given that very few of the instructables include software or file formats, I’m not too worried about it. There’s always a risk when any startup gets acquired by a big company. But I’d be more worried about instructables getting shut down in some future incarnation of Autodesk’s strategic plan."