Houdini is not a very easy program to learn. It has a high learning curve. Some like it, some don't. Houdini is good for particle effects, not for compositing and has got the leading muscle simulation solution. Digital Domain uses Houdini for almost everything. Houdini is not recommended for modeling, also not for animation. the problem with Houdini is that you have to learn for years,to know, how you have to use it, but then you can create effects in all kind, and thats possible because of Houdini's workflow technology! Also Houdini Renderer, Mantra, is FENOMENAL!!! It's based in REYS engine, just like Renderman.
With Mantra you can make displacements with a very high poly count with almost no extra time.
Also DOF and MotionBlur are VERY realistic!
Houdini is the leading 3d software on earth.........
Maya is used a lot for modeling and for visual effects. Most companies rely on their own proprietary software. They use Maya for modeling, but then for animation or other 3D, they rely on their own softwares.
Max has been used for many years in the gaming industry, it has very good polygon modeling. Has very nice particle effects.
Softimage's strength is good for animation. Weak when it comes to Dynamics. Softimage also has nicer modeling, it produces nicer quads for modeling than maya. That's why some game companies prefer to use softimage than maya.
Lightwave is good for television and used for many years in the TV industry. It has a very fast renderer. Particles are ok, not bad. In recent years, Lightwave has regained notice in Feature Film CGI, due to it's advancements and of-course due to Zoic Studio. to mention, some of these recent films are: Sin City, 300, Avatar
Cinema 4D, good for broadcast design and motion graphics, its animation is weak. Modeling OK. It has one of the fastest renderers out there. I believe that Lightwave and Cinema 4D are probably the two fastest renderers.
Motionbuilder is great for animation and rigging. Also very useful for previz and motion capture.
Zbrush and Mudbox is great for very detailed sculpting (on the computer of course). Mudbox is more user friendly and easier to use, but Zbrush has a little bit more powerful tools.
MODO, is good for modeling and 3D painting and rendering. User interface is very flexible, customizable and visually pleasing. It is familiar for Lightwave users and MAYA or Softimage users also find similarities in it.
MODO has its own UV unwrapping which is very intuitive and somehow similar to Lightwave's but with excellent visual aids. MODO was created by some of the ex-programmers of Lightwave, so it should be very familiar for Lightwave users. Indeed I've been using Lightwave for years and when MODO and it's renderer came, I totally switched to it. It is times faster and more reliable than Lightwave's engine and has a very convenient licensing and easy network rendering setup. These days we import animations from Maya and do renderings in MODO.
MODO has merged workflows of all big players (MAYA, Softimage, ...) and has actually revolutionized Lightwave I expected this to happen as a change to Lightwave by Newtek but they failed to do that and Luxology did it. I think that MODO for Lightwave is like Softimage|XSI for Softimage|3D.
vue is good for landscape creation. ILM uses this software to create the landscapes for Pirate of the Caribbean 2 movie.
Overall, you cannot rely just on one program to do the whole job. Houdini is good for one thing, while u need another program to do other effects or works. For example, if you have a heavy 3D scene with millions of polygons, then zbrush, softimage and modo can handle it. Max 9 now can handle it too. Softimage's core has Gigapolygon, meaning it can handle up to a billion polygons.