Last week, Autodesk announced their purchase of CadSoft Eagle, one of the most popular software packages for electronic design automation and PCB layout.
Eagle has been around for nearly thirty years, and has evolved to become the standard PCB design package for electronic hobbyists, students, and engineering firms lead by someone who learned PCB design with Eagle. The reason for this is simple: it’s good enough for most simple designs, and there is a free version of Eagle. The only comparable Open Source alternative is KiCad, which doesn’t have nearly as many dedicated followers as Eagle. Eagle, for better or worse, is a standard, and Open Source companies from Sparkfun to Adafruit use it religiously and have created high-quality libraries of parts and multiple tutorials
I had the chance to talk with [Matt Berggren], former Hackaday overlord who is currently serving as the Director of Autodesk Circuits. He is the person ultimately responsible for all of Autodesk’s electronic design products, from Tinkercad, 123D, Ecad.io, and project Wire, the engine behind Voxel8, Autodesk’s 3D printer that also prints electronics. [Matt] is now the master of Eagle, and ultimately will decide what will change, what stays the same, and the development path for Eagle.
Eagle is famous for the free version of its software. 20 years ago, in the days of Protel and other expensive EDA and electronic design packages, Eagle always had a limited freeware version. Arguably, this is the reason for Eagle’s popularity; a free educational version means schools can use it, and those students will enter the workforce with a desire to use what they already know. A freeware version of Eagle means electronics hobbyists can design their own PCBs at home, using the same tools used by professionals. The freeware version is not going away.
Aside from a freeware version, buying the correct license for Eagle was not easy. Last week, Eagle had five versions available, with different combinations of add ons like the Schematic, Layout, and Autorouter. Each version had limitations on the number of schematic sheets, signal layers, and routing area. For a single user license, there were almost fifty different options, all with different prices.
Now there are only six Eagle products. The commercial licenses range from one schematic sheet, two signal layers, and a 100x80mm routing area to the Ultimate license with 16 signals and a four meter square routing area. For non-commercial licenses, the free educational edition features 99 schematic sheets, six signal layers, and a 160x100mm routing area. This is Eagle getting with the times; a freshly minted engineer must know how to lay antennas on the board, impedance controlled feed lines, DDR routing, how to break out huge BGAs, and everything else a multi-layer board enables.
The big question when it comes to Autodesk licenses is an auspicious cloud looming on the horizon. The Internet is a thing, and now software phones home. Altium’s Circuit Maker is inexorably tied to this cloud, and locks your designs up in an online vault. Will the same be true of Autodesk’s Eagle?
Eagle will, of course, be integrated with other Autodesk products – the entire point of Autodesk buying Eagle is for full-stack hardware development, from mechanical design to electronic. Whether this means Eagle will become a subscription-only model is still up in the air, but from the casual observer’s position it’s doubtful; there are still perpetual licenses of Eagle out there, and right now that’s what Autodesk is selling.
Despite being a near-standard when it comes to PCB design, there are a ton of features Eagle doesn’t have. To do a design or electrical rule check on a project, you have to press a button – it doesn’t happen automatically. There’s going to be a long, hard look at live DRC and ERC. Autodesk is also “Definitely going to take a close look at routing.” Whether this means push and shove routing, dragging traces around, or anything else the newest version of KiCad does exceptionally well is up in the air, but it must be noted Eagle is now Autodesk’s premier EDA suite.
What does [Matt] have planned that he can say to the press? Eagle’s core, mostly – hierarchy, modularity, mechanical integration (in keeping with integration with other Autodesk products), and revision management. Whether this means the dreaded F/B Annotation has been severed! notification will finally disappear is still up in the air, but one can only hope.
With a new direction comes possible changes to the UI. A decade and a half ago, installing Autocad on a machine would quickly wear off the lettering on your escape key. More modern CAD packages, such as Autodesk Fusion and Inventor are much simpler. Interfaces, even for the most complex pieces of software, have gotten simpler, and there’s no reason Eagle’s baroque UI couldn’t use a few updates.
That said, there is a lot of history in the Eagle UI. It has been around since before Windows 3.1. Some people love it, and any changes to the UI of a beloved program will be met with bricks through windows. A few slight tweaks wouldn’t hurt, though, and keyboard shortcuts are an obvious addition.
Autodesk’s Play For The Future Of Design
Autodesk’s acquisition of Eagle didn’t happen in a vacuum. In 2014, Autodesk bought Circuits.io, an electronic design software that, like Fritzing, is based around the solderless breadboard paradigm. Despite being easily compared to Fritzing, Circuits.io has some fairly advanced capabilities including simulation of breadboarded circuits. It’s not a SPICE simulation, but you can’t look at something like this and not see the future of electronic design.
Circuits.io, Tinkercad, and Autodesk’s series of 123D apps are their play at the Maker market. Yes, you can design a simple circuit and have it do real work, but you’re not going to implement an FPGA or anything designed for EMC compliance with these tools.
When it comes to Serious Business™, Autodesk’s portfolio of electronic design software has been severely lacking. There’s a reason for this: Altium has been working on the problem for several decades, it’s still not perfect. KiCad is old enough to vote, and there are still problems. Eagle, too, is almost thirty years old. Building EDA suites and PCB design software is hard, and possibly the hardest single domain of software development. Autodesk simply can’t spin their own electronic design software and expect it to be good. Eagle was already there, Premier Farnell was selling stuff off, and Autodesk’s purchase of Eagle should come as no surprise.
What this purchase does mean is integration into the rest of Autodesk’s offerings. Already, you can use Autodesk products to build a six-speed transmission, a house, and a spaceship. The addition of Eagle means you can also build a credit card sized ARM dev board. The path forward is to integrate all these capabilities under one roof; you’ll be able to design the electronics for a portable video game console, and take that board file and build an enclosure around it.
On a personal note
I’ve been using Eagle for years now. I’ve known it was a fairly limited tool, and I’ve known about KiCad. I know I need a better electronic design tool. The question I ask myself is, “do I want to spend the time and effort to learn KiCad, when all I really need to do right now is design a simple board that would take an hour in Eagle?”
This is the reason people don’t use better software packages: I know Eagle, and in the time it would take to learn KiCad, I could finish the project I’m working on, make a sandwich, take a nap, and get my boards in the mail. Yes, it’s lazy, but Eagle is good enough.
With the new direction for Eagle, I believe I will never have to learn KiCad. Eagle is about to get good – really good – and I can’t wait to see the first Eagle release under the Autodesk banner.