The AutoCAD workalike market in 2019

AutoCAD is targeted by many workalike software vendors precisely because it is the most successful general 2D/3D CAD program of all time. With four, six, eight, twelve million users of the 35-year-old software, entrepreneurs figure that there has to be a certain percentage of users who want something that costs less, even if it does less. AutoCAD is priced about 3× more to license annually than it is to buy a typical workalike outright.

AutoCAD became a target after Autodesk made the wrong people angry, ones who could afford the price tag it would cost to channel their fury in getting back at Autodesk. The strands of history involving these stories are long, but thanks to them the likes of IntelliCAD, Open Design Alliance, and Graebert are today well-established organizations providing alternatives to the market.

The original AutoCAD workalike is likely long forgotten. VDraft from Softsource was in 1996, the very first CAD program to natively read and write DWG files, AutoCAD’s native format. VDraft also featured a selection of AutoCAD-like commands, and it also offered functions now considered standard, but back then were novel: copy and paste, an at-cursor menu, and opening more than just one drawing at a time. Even though it was priced as low as AutoCAD LT, it failed. At the time, if you wanted a low-cost DWG editor, you’d just get Autodesk’s LT version of AutoCAD to be assured of file exchange compatibility with AutoCAD.

The second workalike was also a failure, IntelliCAD 98 from Visio. When it became clear in 1999 to the popular diagramming software company that their CAD program wasn’t selling in sufficient numbers, it set up a non-profit group it called the IntelliCAD Technical Consortium and then donated the code to them. The offspring succeeded: members of the consortium subsequently launched dozens of workalikes, selling millions of copies.

The early AutoCAD workalikes failed primarily because the compatibility with DWG was not perfect. When opening AutoCAD files or outputting files in AutoCAD’s DWG format, there could be anomalies in the files. Lines might be different colors, dimensions might not display correctly, etc. Sometimes files were unusable after going through the exchange process. The situation led to the formation of the Open Design Alliance, which is committed to maintaining compatibility between its version of DWG and that of Autodesk.

On another front, there were a couple of workalikes made to compete with MicroStation that worked with DGN files. They failed. The only DGN-workalike to succeed was MicroStation itself: in 1984, it was a cheaper version of Integraph’s mini-computer-based IGDS (Intergraph Graphic Design System). In fact, MicroStation was originally named PseudoStation.

Otherwise, I can’t think any other CAD program that’s faced a challenge from workalikes. You could argue that some CAD systems copy each other’s style of working, such as Inventor copying Solidworks copying Pro/Engineer, but a workalike has to at least use the same file format and offer a similar user interface, by my definition. With the current effort by the Open Design Alliance to reverse-engineer Revit’s APIs (application programming interfaces) and file formats, there may one day be a Revit workalike.

When workalikes make sense

Today, there are three dozen or so AutoCAD workalikes for you to choose from. These programs are called “workalikes” because they work like AutoCAD. They offer a similar user interface, operate similar commands, and read and save files to the same DWG file format.

What they don’t offer are all the commands and user interface enhancements found in the latest releases of AutoCAD, nor necessarily all the same options inside of commands. The #1 missing feature is creating and editing dynamic blocks, although many workalikes can use these unique blocks once they are created in AutoCAD.

On the other hand, workalikes distinguish themselves by offering extra functions not found in AutoCAD, such as additional methods for entity selection, more ways to draw objects, and enhancements to the user interface, such as the interactive (and customizable) Quad cursor provided by BricsCAD.

BricsCAD’s Quadcursor provides a dialog at the cursor point offering likely commands. (Source: Aertworks)

The #1 reason for choosing a workalike, however, is that it costs at least half as much as AutoCAD, and nearly all of them offer buy-once, use-forever permanent licenses. This means you can have twice as many workstations for designers for the same software cost. Speaking of workstations, most workalikes have lower hardware requirements than AutoCAD and several run on the free Linux operating system.
Here are some more reasons why you might want to buy a workalike:

  • You are using pirated software and want to go legal.
  • You find AutoCAD too expensive and want to save on licensing fees.
  • You don’t like the idea of subscription-only software and prefer to pay a single fee for a permanent license.
  • You find the AutoCAD feature set overkill for the kind of work you do.
  • You want to design software that’s more actively developed than AutoCAD is.

An approach taken by some design firms is to retain a few seats of AutoCAD for guaranteed compatibility (such as with dynamic blocks), but then go big on workalikes. Thanks to the effort of the Open Design Alliance, reading and writing DWG files is no longer an issue. The effort has become easier as Autodesk has been introducing fewer new features in DWG over the years.

An approach taken by some design firms is to retain a few seats of AutoCAD for guaranteed compatibility (such as with dynamic blocks), but then go big on workalikes. Thanks to the effort of the Open Design Alliance, reading and writing DWG files is no longer an issue. The effort has become easier as Autodesk has been introducing fewer new features in DWG over the years.

Today’s workalike market

With so many available, which to buy? Fortunately, workalikes can be segregated into three groups, which makes it easier to compare them, and so toss out ones that might be unsuitable for you. For many companies, pricing is not publicly available.

  • Group I workalikes are based on IntelliCAD from IntelliCAD Technical Consortium
  • Group A workalikes are based on ARES from Graebert GmbH
  • Group X workalikes are written independently

As for numbers of users, those are hard to come by. Vendors boast of it only when the number is useful for marketing purposes. Draftsight is the numbers king, at one time boasting 10 million downloads, most of its free version. All others are below a million, and I suspect most are in the range of 10,000 to 100,000.

Group I. The largest group of AutoCAD workalikes is based on IntelliCAD code from the IntelliCAD Technical Consortium. Programmers hired by ITC add features and fix bugs. Members contribute code enhancements and report bugs. The ITC is run by members, from whom a board is elected annually.

The ITC has 20 members visible on its website, plus a number of invisible members who use IntelliCAD as a CAD engine for internal projects. To distinguish themselves, members rebrand IntelliCAD with their colors and logos and add vertical add-ons specific to their geographic region.

You cannot purchase IntelliCAD from the ITC, only through its members. ITC members sometimes engage in price wars with each other, and so you may find some packages on sale for 50% off, as I did.

4M (€125 and up; Greece)—4M runs add-ons for architecture, MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) and energy analysis on top of IntelliCAD.
http://www.4msa.com/

ACCA software (€349/year and up; Italy)—ACCA adapts IntelliCAD for architectural. landscape, structural analysis, construction costing, thermal calculations, and many more; says it has the largest number of IFC-certified BIM software in the world; sold by subscription only.
http://www.accasoftware.com/

ActCAD ($499 and up; India)—ActCAD sells IntelliCAD along with add-ons for railroad track design.
http://www.actcad.com/

ADeko Technologies ($200 and up; Turkey)—ADeko specializes in software for interior design and panel furniture.
http://www.adeko.com/ 

ArCADiasoft (€480 and up; Poland)—ArCADiasoft sells into the building design market, with add-ons for architecture, electrical, gas supply, heating, telecommunications, water, construction, and 3D modeling.
http://www.arcadiasoft.eu/

BlueLinx (USA)—BlueLinx sells building products, but it is not clear how they use IntelliCAD.
http://www.bluelinxco.com/

CAD Projekt (Poland)—CAD Projekt specializes in interior design and kitchen design, including rendering; offers an online designer.
https://www.en.cadprojekt.com.pl/

CADian (Korea)—CADian sells rebranded IntelliCAD with add-ons for architecture, mechanical design, electrical, plant design, surveying, and nesting (sheet metal cutting).
http://www.cadian.com/

Carlson ($595 and up; USA)—Carlson targets its IntelliCAD-based software at surveyors, civil engineering, hydrology, accident investigation, and mining.
http://www.carlsonsw.com/

CAD-Manufacturing Solutions ($149 and up; Korea)—CMS sells straight-up IntelliCAD, along with quoting software.
http://intellicadms.com/

FrameCAD (New Zealand)—FrameCAD specializes in steel frame structure design. The company claims to have compatibility with the most standards in the world.
http://www.framecad.com/

GZ Yuan Fang Computer Software Engineering (China)—The company bases its YFCAD interior design software on IntelliCAD.
http://www.yfcad.com/

Keymark Enterprises (USA)—Keymark specializes in steel framing design.
http://www.keymark.com/

MicroSurvey Software (CAD$1,145 and up; Canada)—MicroSurvey specializes in software for surveying using IntelliCAD; also sells hardware for surveying.
http://www.microsurvey.com/

MULTIPLUS (Brazil)—CADMultiplus offers additional software for architecture, BIM, concrete design, steel structures, sanitation, and so on. Uses a hardware lock.
https://www.multiplus.com/Software/cadmultiplus/

ProgeSOFT (Switzerland)—ProgeSoft sells ProgeCAD with an architectural add-on; pricing available only from the local distributor, of which they have many in the world.
http://www.progesoft.com/

Stabiplan International (€300/year; Netherlands)—Stabiplan specializes in BIM software and add-ons; unclear how they use IntelliCAD. Pricing ranges from free to annual subscriptions. The company was recently purchased by Trimble.
http://www.stabiplan.com/

Wrightsoft ($219 per year and up; USA)—Wrightsoft specializes in HVAC design and uses IntelliCAD as the drawing engine.
http://www.wrightsoft.com/

ZwCAD Software (China)—ZwCAD was based on IntelliCAD, then went independent, but following a lawsuit from Autodesk, is back under the IntelliCAD umbrella. It offers architectural and mechanical add-ons and a separate ZW3D 3D solid modeler that the company purchased from VX. Claims 900,000 users.
http://www.zwcad.com

Group A. A smaller group of AutoCAD workalikes is based on Ares code from Graebert of Germany. Graebert’s own programmers add features and fix bugs, while licensees can add their own code enhancements and report bugs. Graebert is a family-owned private firm. Graebert differs from ITC in that it offers licenses for all platforms upon which CAD is run today:

  • ARES Commander—runs on the desktop using Linux, MacOS, and Windows
  • ARES Kudo—runs in Web browsers
  • ARES Touch—runs on phones and tablets using Android or iOS

While a number of workalikes offer mobile viewing, only a few offer editing on mobile devices. Even then, it is only 2D editing, with 3D viewing.

Graebert has five public licensees and an unknown number of additional private ones; it is also used by Graebert for its SiteMaster line of architectural software. Licensees may rebrand their versions of Ares software with their colors and logos and extend functions with APIs.

CADopia ($545; USA)—CADopia uses stock Ares; offers courseware and CAD tools for steel and concrete structures.
http://www.cadopia.com

Corel (CAD$900; Canada)—CorelCAD also uses stock Ares, except for a translator for its Corel Designer and Draw software. Versions available:

  • Desktop
  • Mobile

https://www.coreldraw.com/en/product/corel-cad/

Dassault Systemes ($299 and up; France)—DraftSight was meant to irk Autodesk following a series of lawsuits between the two, but now Dassault Systemes sees DraftSight strategic as a flanker brand. Dassault works with Graebert to greatly extend DraftSight’s MCAD capabilities to the point that it ties in with Dassault’s 3DExperience platform. Graebert stated in 2017 that ten million copies had been downloaded, although most would have been of the free version; there no longer is a free version as of v2019.
http://www.draftsight.com

Graebert ($795 and up; Germany)—Graebert began working on an AutoCAD workalike after Autodesk cut it off as the exclusive distributor for Germany, first with FelixCAD and now with Ares. The company has also been porting CAD to small devices and survey instruments, first with Windows CE and now with Android and iOS. Versions available:

  • Desktop
  • Mobile
  • Web

https://www.graebert.com/

ProgeSoft (Italy)—ProgeCAD is unusual in that it licenses IntelliCAD for its Windows ProgeCAD package, but ARES for its MacOS ICADMAC add-on; pricing available only from the local distributor.
http://www.progesoft.com/

Group X. The final group of vendors develops their software independently. They tend to have a larger collection of advanced functions than packages that depend on IntelliCAD or ARES. All of them provide APIs for creating add-on applications.

Bricsys ($635 and up; Belgium)—BricsCAD was originally based on IntelliCAD, but then Bricsys a decade ago broke away from the ITC to rebuild BricsCAD from the ground up. The company targets BIM, sheet metal, and direct modeling through its own add-ons, and has as by far the largest third-party add-on collection of any workalike. The software runs on Linux, MacOS, and Windows. It offers a free 3D version called Shape and has the most aggressive upgrade schedule of any CAD package. It is now owned by measurement giant Hexagon. Claims 250,000 users.
https://www.bricsys.com

CAXA (China)—As a company specializing in software for Chinese manufacturing companies, CAXA offers CAD, CAM, EDM, PLM, and manufacturing management software. The 2D drafting package is called CAXA Draft, while the 3D option is IronCAD from North America, which it owns.
http://www.caxa.com/

GStar Software ($399 and up; China)—GStar CAD was originally based on IntelliCAD, but then it went independent a few years ago, and so boasts about that on its website. In addition to the base CAD package, it offers architectural and mechanical add-ons. Claims 500,000 users.
http://www.gstarcad.net 

IMSI/Design ($49 and up; USA)—TurboCAD is almost as old as AutoCAD, and for many decades was not compatible with it. This changed, however, with the TwinCAD initiative, and so now it is. IMSI/Software offers many levels of TurboCAD, as well as vertical add-ons for symbols, landscape design, civil, architectural, and mechanical. Versions available:

  • Desktop
  • Mobile

NanoSoft ($540 and up; Russia)—nanoCAD began as a free AutoCAD workalike, the plan is to make money from add-ons. But companies pivot, and while the free version is still available, it is several releases old. Today nanoCAD offers some of the most advanced functions in a basic CAD system, second only to BricsCAD and DraftSight. Examples include an extremely advanced Table function, IFC support, and point cloud processing. While it has lots of add-ons, most are in Russian only.
https://nanocad.com/

Conclusion

All kinds of alternatives exist for producing and editing drawings in the de facto standard DWG format. To determine for yourself which works best for you, download the 30-day demo versions; all vendors provide one. Narrow your choices with the following criteria:

1. Vertical add-on software that applies to your region
2. Cost versus capability

You may find that a mix of lower and higher priced versions is ideal for your design firm.

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  1. Joseph Lombardo says:

    Great article

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