Years ago, Marketing Manager, Amanda Collins, wrote:
Autodesk Labs, part of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), is home to innovative new technologies and collaborative development. Its mission is to involve you, the customer, in the progress of design technology solutions. We’re not a beta program (although Autodesk does have an active beta community), or a usability team because the technology we work with is too new to be a product. The user feedback that you provide to Labs is really on product ideas while they’re still in an early conceptual stage.
The various divisions within Autodesk explore and develop technology that is commercially relevant to customers in design – whether they’re involved in architecture, manufacturing, civil engineering, movies, games, or other industries. Through an online forum, Labs provides the public with free, early access to prototypes, technology previews, and experimental web services. We engage users in a conversation about new technology and product concepts to understand what has value in their world. Ultimately, Labs is a reflection of Autodesk’s commitment to connecting with new and existing users to enable direct feedback that leads to better products and services.
That's pretty much remained unchanged throughout the years.
Back in the day, Autodesk had various touchpoints with customers:
Going in reverse order:
Autodesk Account (formerly Subscription Center)
Autodesk customers work with shipping products via our Account Center. They license their subscriptions and get their updates.
Prior to release, some customers participate in beta programs. These are typically done under non-disclosure agreements (NDA). Beta testers help test, but they can’t run around telling anyone about it. The focus of a beta is to make sure a product is ready to ship.
The Research team works with universities on cutting-edge research. They are free thinkers who can propose any idea that is “so crazy, it just might work.” That leads to innovations that would otherwise be unheard of.
In June 2006, Shaan Hurley was our manager of beta programs and would often get beta feedback like "I love the functionality that this new feature provides, but I wish it worked like this instead of that." In the beta tester's mind, the product had months before release, so certainly there was enough time to redo it to work the way the customer was requesting. That wasn't true then and is not true now. Beta testing is about ironing out the wrinkles, not a time for going back to square one. Shaan wished that there was a way Autodesk could listen and respond to such requests. Thus, Autodesk Labs was born.
Autodesk Labs was created to handle those kinds of questions. “What if we totally redid this?” or “What if we made it do something else instead?” When something is on Labs, it is early enough in the life cycle that questions like this are welcome. To open up to as large an audience as possible, there’s normally no NDA – Autodesk Labs is wide-open to the public. The technology is said to be in preview mode. In fact, we’re not even allowed to call them alphas or betas because that would imply that something is nearing release. In the case of Labs, it can go either way. Some previews go on to become products. Others die a quick death. So Labs is a step between research and beta.
Ideally, an idea would start out in Autodesk Research, get a thumbs up from early adopters as part of an Autodesk Labs technology preview, get fully developed by the product development organization, get beta tested, and released as part of Autodesk's subscription offerings.
Autodesk Labs and Autodesk Beta have one main thing in common — they're both about feedback. That's why they live on the same website. Autodesk Labs used to have its own website. Now a beta participant knows how to provide feedback on a Labs technology preview because the process is the same. Though I have initially described technology previews and betas as starkly different but with the same process, there are actually varying degrees of separation between them as well as other processes at Autodesk:
Autodesk technology previews come from the various divisions of the company. If they have a technology that they are unsure about, they conduct a technology preview. The feedback determines if it takes the next step. It really is based on the feedback. It's not a fait accompli. If it were, the team would simply go to beta. They could conduct a private beta without tipping their hand to competitors as is what happens in a public technology preview. Whereas a beta involves having customers test a series of builds that eventually culminate in a released product, technology previews are often one-shot releases where feedback is collected and a decision is made:
When a Labs technology preview ends, one of three things can happen:
A technology graduates from Labs when it is available somewhere else (e.g., App Center, feature in a new product offering, new cloud-based service).
A technology retires from Labs when the preview ends, and users can't get it anywhere. It may come back as another technology preview sometime later. It may show up in a future product offering. The technology is not necessarily dead, but in the meantime, customers can't get it.
Sometimes teams decide they need more feedback, so they conduct another technology preview.
Labs technology previews graduate about 60% of the time.
So why would customers participate in a technology preview? Why would they take the chance of learning and trying a new technology only to have the rug pulled out from under them 40% of the time? It's because they get to help shape the solutions that will meet the needs of their businesses. And by trying the technology in its preview stage, they can get experience with it before their competitors do. They can also have peace of mind that when the technology becomes commercially available, it will work with their data because they have tried for themselves.
Technology previews are not intended for production use. After all, they're still in the early preview stage. They are in their infancy and are not fully baked. We are realists and recognize that some customers use them at their own risk. Technology previews are like taste tests at malls. We let people take a sip of Coke and a sip of Pepsi and tell us which one they like better. Regardless of which one they prefer, we are not promising to deliver a lifetime supply of soda. Sometimes people hate the taste of both!
We make technology previews available via Autodesk Labs so people can give us feedback. Most customers try them on test projects. If the technology preview works for them — great. If it does not work for them, no harm/no foul since the customers are only playing with the technology on test projects. Since technology previews have an end date that is published at the onset of the technology preview, customers try them on projects that end before the technology preview ends. Technology previews have a specific end date so no one confuses them with functionality that is associated with a subscription service. In fact, technology previews are offered for free to Subscription customers, non-Subscription customers, and educational users alike. Purchasing decisions should not be made on the assumed continuance of a technology preview. When the previews end, I don't have a way to re-activate them. It's not part of the Labs process. Also, since technology previews are not product nor service offerings, Autodesk Support has no control over them, and they are not part of the customer service they provide.
So Autodesk Labs is all about feedback. We are thankful to our Autodesk Labs Community who helps shape the future of our technology.
Process definition is alive in the lab.