In contrast with AutoCAD's skin-deep changes, Bentley's new release, MicroStation V8.1, is packed full of improvements
There are two major players in the AEC CAD world: Autodesk and Bentley. Each can lay claim to some impressive statistics: Autodesk has more than 5,000,000 customers, while Bentley is the world's largest privately owned software company.
These differences are important.
Autodesk has an enormous user base, and is a publicly listed company. As a result, Autodesk has a lot of people to keep happy. In contrast, Bentley has the luxury of being free from shareholders demanding instant returns and can, therefore, take a longer-term approach to software development.
These two approaches are evident in the latest releases of their respective flagship products. AutoCAD 2004 is a compilation of user-requests with an improved user interface, but the majority of the new features are skindeep. The new material in the 8.1 release of MicroStation and associated tools is more like an iceberg, with the majority of the mass hidden below the surface.
I attended MicroStation's launch event at the Renaissance Hotel near Heathrow, grandly named 'The World Tour'. Bentley is taking its show to 70 cities around the world, and, as this was the inaugural event, we were lucky enough to have Gregg Bentley, president and CEO of Bentley Systems, there to get the ball rolling.
His presentation covered Bentley's general business strategy and its continuous and steady growth during the past five years. He also rocked the audience with his statement that Bentley has invested more than 500 man-years of development time in this release. For the first time in its history, Bentley has synchronised more than 100 tools from its product suite, so that all of them work with the same build of MicroStation from day one.
This is an enormous achievement for two very different reasons:
arch-rival Autodesk typically releases vertical applications 30 to 90 days after a major release of its flagship AutoCAD; and
Bentley users can adopt the new V8.1 file format in the confidence that all associated enterprise tools will be compatible.
Other issues covered by Bentley related to the harmony that is made possible for the company's user base through improved synchronisation with other consultants via a series of cool new features.
The DWG-DGN read-write capability has been improved and accelerated, so that opening DWG files is now considerably quicker than it was in version 8.0. Furthermore, Bentley is so committed to reducing the headaches of its users at dataexchange time that it also announced the release of Open-DGN - a confident step towards greater file-format openness.
Bentley View can now be downloaded freely from Bentley's website by anyone who wants to be able to access DGN files for printing etc. This enables non-CAD users, such as managers, to have access to design files without having the overhead of an expensive CAD seat, which for the most part is left unused.
Following its president's keynote speech, Ian Lapper and Joe Mclean, two of Bentley's technical consultants, demonstrated that the synchronised MicroStation environment has a much broader reach than one might first imagine. They took it in turns to access, edit, modify and review design files in what they called a 'Managed Environment'. Using Projectwise to govern who had access to which file and how, and with the access permissions granted to them, they could interact with it.
They demonstrated some of the powerful new features in the Bentley 8.1 suite, including:
Design History - a mechanism for capturing key stages in the design and enabling any designer with the right permissions to trace back retrospectively through all design iterations and actions and make any amendments required along the way;
Digital Rights - a powerful new feature, which is stored within the design file and dictates who can do what with the file and its contents, such as view, print or edit. It can even be set so that the permission to open the file times out after a set period, thus locking it; and lDigital Interplot - a batch plotting utility that does so much so well it would take another two pages to do it justice.
Unfortunately, the demonstration lasted for more than an hour and included so many changes of 'hat' [identity on the project] that I lost the plot somewhere towards the end. As this was the first night of the 'World Tour', I hope they have since condensed and simplified the presentation so the functionality regains centre stage from the supporting actors. From what I saw it certainly deserves to.
Joe Croser can be contacted by email at joe@croser. net