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It’s been a while since Google sold SketchUp to Trimble; who should be gloating?

It’s actually kind of a complex answer. Let’s look at each of the three players.

SketchUp (and its users) for sure. Their favorite tool was sold from one mega-firm to another. And arguably a step up since Trimble is focused on the construction industry, while Google isn’t.

Trimble since they just acquired a mature, much loved tool used by architects and many others. They probably see posts like this one about what software skills firms are looking for in new employees and are thrilled that SketchUp is so much in demand. Trimble is smart. They know how well SketchUp fits into their vision of the future, a future that connects the documentation to the construction site and final built products. Their portfolio is more complete now with SketchUp as a growing power tool for architects. And they are wasting no time exploring and developing some awesome augmented reality and digital/analog merging technology and apps that build on access to SketchUp (this, for example). But then again that last link is about Trimble building on top of something developed by another company…

Google since they offloaded something they didn’t need. This should make us all sit up a bit. Google had a very nice 3D modeling software and then they got rid of it. SketchUp isn’t a global money maker. I’m sure it’s profitable and valuable in our AEC space, but it’s always good to remember that the money floating around that comes from us, not from what we produce (ie, the built environment) is tiny in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know the numbers, but do you think more money was dumped into research and development for BIM tools or for Social Media platforms in 2014? How about BIM tools or Candy Crush clones? Okay that last one is a bit extreme. But step back. BIM tools or video games? That’s a no brainer. (as an aside, I’d love to know how much the percentage of Autodesk’s profits come from AEC software, and how much that’s shrunk over the years). Anyways it should be clear that we’re not a huge deal.

Back to the original comment about Google offloading SketchUp. The awesome thing that helped propel SketchUp during the Google years (from my perspective) was its connection to Google Earth and Google Maps. There were once challenges to model cities and anyone could put their models into Google Earth for anyone else to view. That’s all still possible now, right? But there’s no need. Google has improved its reality capturing tools (cars with cameras, satellites with cameras, etc.) such that it’s pulling the 3D forms from reality. So now if you go to Google Earth or Google Maps, the 3D isn’t as clean and pretty as it once was, but it’s all more or less automated—or at least aggregated from collected data. So Google stopped needing SketchUp because it no longer needed to model reality. It could just scan reality. In just a few short years it made that leap. And while right now when I go to Google Earth I get annoyed because it doesn’t feel as nice as it did during the SketchUp era, that’ll change. Probably just another couple of months or a year or two. 3D scanning technology, like the Structure Sensor, is advancing so fast.

What does all that point to? Why am I talking about this so long after the sale of SketchUp happened? This isn’t about how good SketchUp is, but about the genre in general. I think about the coming day when everything is so easily scanned, so easily documented. At that point what happens to the age old domain of the architect? We’re clinging to old methods, or anachronistic facsimiles of old methods with digital tools (line weights on a limited number of building sections, precise hatches that follow old graphic standards, etc). And before we fully understand the value and power of our current advanced methods (BIM), that might become obsolete because all our kids have smartphones that can just scan and document the environment. Or they don’t even need to do that because giant corporations like Google have already done it all for them.

Are we all racing ahead to improve BIM and master the ability to model anything and everything just as changes to the technological landscape will negate some or all of the benefits? I know permitting departments need plans and will want them for years. And stuff will need professional stamps of all sorts…but change is coming. And…

We architects are slow. We are at risk of being eclipsed by forces unrelated to architecture. What then? How to do we survive the transition to a world where our special skills are dwarfed by ubiquitous access of easy to use, abundant, and ever present tech? No answers today. Just more questions.

Okay, one answer. Or a clue at least. A focus on information and design and a decoupling from documentation and traditional instruments of service offer one potential direction. Documentation and modeling will become automated in due time (already if you are still drawing elevations and sections you are doing it wrong). So while we need 3D modeling and 2D drawing skills for today, we need to focus on other skills and strengths for the future. In a few years all my rants about hand sketching will probably apply to manual 3D modeling. And yes I know documenting existing conditions is different from designing new, but the automation of one will definitely lead to monumental changes (and automation?) in the other. Don’t fall behind.

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  • July 9, 2014


    Thank you for your analysis of the Sketchup / Trimble scenario, you provide great clarity. As someone who was just getting into the idea of submitting sketchup models to Google Earth, I am still not happy with Google’s decision. Yes, scanning technology is getting better, but it is still no where near good enough, and I think it will be some time before it gets close to what humans can do.

    It is no longer possible to submit models, About 8 months ago was the last. This upset many geo-modelers, some withdrew all their models, Google don’t really care. There were those that made a living of providing Google with content for free, and for years of providing hundreds of models to make Google Earth what it was, Google sent some of the top modelers a gift of some google branded crap,-mug, mouse pad, pens, etc.

    The major cities seem to be all that google is concerned about, they may take decades to get round to 3d mapping all the smaller towns and rural areas, and for most of the world, the landscape is based on 20m contours, lacking detail, particularly at coastal areas, where you get sloping seas, and flat cliffs.
    Google’s issue with publishing user generated models was the cost of all the people involved in scrutinising the submissions as they had very particular standards for photo-textures, and complexity issues.
    I’ve suggested that the leave the scrutiny up to the modeling community, and free themselves of the burden, but retain the product.

      • July 10, 2014


        Yes, the option is there, but rather than being obvious, like selecting a layer, you need to go into options and un-tick – use 3d imagery (disable to use legacy 3D buildings).
        How obscure is that? Originally, they didn’t have the option, and had a serious backlash of complaints from geo-modelers.
        As for the Wiki-world idea, I did approach Jimmy Wales, he thinks it’s a wonderful idea, but is committed to too many other projects at the moment, and cant take it on.
        Any takers?

  • July 9, 2014


    Very good perspective about how slow we are as architects to chart the course of BIM. I have a big concern: many construction firms are adopting BIM, and in some cases will build their own BIM model to explore constructability issues as well as estimating and scheduling. Overtime, will their acquired BIM skills make hiring an architect irrelevant? Shouldn’t we, as architects, regain our footing by being master builders again instead of retreating in our shell of architecture? The field of AEC is bound to look different several years from now.

  • January 24, 2017


    NECROMANCER ACTIVATE (I just started learning sketchup and it is fun and exciting, sue me)

    i’m an amateur so it’s possible I just totally missed your point, but:

    Even if reality is scannable, design and aesthetic is not. Can’t scan something that doesn’t exist! Even if great wonderful time saving things like publicly available high-res scans of, a certain type of pipe with texture/color/material/etc data already built in come into being, the thing you’re building with them still needs designing and modelling.

    I think the scanning will mostly drastically increase the accuracy, utility and data-density of the components out there. If you’re mainly thinking of creating digital models of existing facilities, from original plans or hand-measurements, then yeah I suspect that share of your revenue is very much in danger. That will be a job for surveyor types and data entry people, though you might have to sign off on whatever they produce / show them how to clean up the generated model.

    So that does mean that y’all gotta look behind you at the mongrel hordes charging up your software learning curve. Don’t fret though, your talent is real and actually just becomes more powerful. You are correct in the comments above that you’ll have to evolve your concept of what your responsibilities are. That could be a good thing, the stuff you’ve mastered that is now busywork to your mind will fall to someone else, someone who may not even have a degree but knows the software if current trends continue. If you liked that stuff best, fine, stick with it, but you’ll be caught up in the usual competition as to essentially who is fastest with the software (as happens in all purely technical roles) or creates the most optimized file sizes, idk.

    With your experience, however, you can assign the modelling to someone else, because your job will be to conceive of new solutions in the modelling software and component library that now exists in your mind. Doesn’t matter how good the new kids are with a mouse, they can’t be as fast or as flexible as that, even if their autosave feature is much better. And if they are wasting their time reinventing the wheel for the first project that stumps them, they lose their cost-effectiveness at the rapid rate. You have the wheels already!

    Don’t run from the hordes, charge ahead of them as their leader >:)

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