Collaborating with the Butterfly

I have blogged about Autodesk’s new online offering – Project Butterflybefore, but today, Tal Weiss, former co-founder of VisualTao and now Senior Software Development Manager with Autodesk, gave me an interesting presentation of the collaboration features that have been added recently.

With more than 25,000 documents already uploaded into the system, Autodesk wants to position Project Butterfly as the “Google Docs for AutoCAD”. Beyond being able to edit an AutoCAD drawing online (which by itself is a great feature), these are the collaboration options:

  • Share a DWG file for editing, redlining or just viewing. Various options allow for control of sharing parameters determining who sees what. It is also possible to revoke permissions as needed (for example after bidding on a project has ended).
  • Crop a view and share only a portion of a file. This cuts down on clutter when sharing large documents.
  • Co-editing and chat. Multiple users can edit the same file synchronously. As an added benefit, collaborators can bring up a handy chat window to talk about what they are doing.
  • Share any file in Butterfly’s file browser. This would allow using Butterfly’s web space as a central document repository (organized e.g. per project). Given the (current?) promise of unlimited webspace, this is a great plus. One feature that I am still missing here is versioning for non-DWG files, but that may be on the horizon. Also, at this point, non-DWG and non-image files can only be downloaded, not viewed online. It should at least be possible to open a PDF file in a separate window. There may also be an opportunity for inclusion of another Google service (Docs!) here.

Another very interesting new feature is the inclusion of Google Maps. At this point, a Google Map view can be underlaid under a drawing and scaled to the drawing’s dimensions. This even allows for use of Butterfly as a lightweight GIS viewer, where layer-based features (e.g. utility lines) can be viewed together with topography information and orthophotos. Unfortunately scaling is not based on the model dimensions (which shouldn’t be too hard to implement) and positioning should be coordinate-based to make this a more precise tool. But at least it offers great opportunity for visualization of anything from sewer pipes to building floorplans.

One question that will be central for most users is data fidelity: “Will the content of my uploaded file be fully preserved when I download the edited file?” Autodesk’s answer is that the uploaded file gets processed by their RealDWG engine. Once a download is requested, changes made in Butterfly will then be merged into the original file and the result will be served, which should preserve all original data. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to try this out, so feel free to leave any comments on this process below if you have.

Another important point is data security. Unfortunately this is not clearly visible at the moment. When a user logs on, he/she does so on a page that isn’t SSL-secured (the “s” is missing on the “http”). So it isn’t immediately clear that uploading proprietary company files happens over a secure connection. As Weiss outlined, a lack of SSL encryption is inconsequential since the only component transferred over http is the Flash-viewer. All uploading and downloading happens through a secure and encrypted connection within the Flash environment. Also, data is stored on Amazon’s S3 servers that are used by many online services.

When I asked about Autodesk’s 3D software (like Revit or Inventor), I was told that the current focus of Butterfly is on AutoCAD users but that in the future, expanding this platform vertically (literally and figuratively) into 3D is an option. At this point, the most likely use scenario with these programs is to export a DWG, then import it into Butterfly for collaboration and editing and then link the DWG back into the 3D software to make edits manually.

I am curious to see how Autodesk incorporates this online branch into their desktop software. I am sure, we’ll soon see an “Export to Butterfly” button. Hopefully this will offer some functionality to link and merge files easily. In any case, Butterfly will likely not be as freely accessible to everyone as it is now in its beta stage. It would be great, though, if basic functionality like viewing DWG/DWF files and markup/measurement would remain free. That would offer an alternative to installing numerous viewers and would be in line with Autodesk’s Design Review product philosophy.

Similar to my older post, I’ll end this post with a wishlist (use the feature request button in Butterfly to submit yours):

  • Support American units (feet and inches).
  • More precise positioning and scaling in the Google Map view.
  • File versioning for non-DWG files and online viewing of office- and PDF files.
  • File>New. This would allow Butterfly to work ass a basic no-installation CAD software.

You can find out more about Project Butterfly here: