CAD history book

In case you missed it on WorldCAD Access, Dave Weisberg has released a history of CAD as a free book on-line. It is called The Engineering Design Revolution and subtitled The People, Companies and Computer Systems That Changed Forever the Practice of Engineering.

I don’t like regurgitating things from other blogs, but this is an exception for two reasons. First, I find it very interesting. Second, it’s in a good cause and deserves all the publicity it can get. Access to the book in PDF form is free, but Dave is asking for voluntary contributions to the Cancer League of Colorado Foundation.

I’ve skimmed through the Autodesk and AutoCAD chapter of the book, and while I was already familiar with much of the content that particular section and could pedantically quibble with its accuracy in a few places, I still found it highly informative and interesting.

You can find the book at www.cadhistory.net.

How much do you exchange data with non-Windows users?

A discussion I’ve been having elsewhere has prompted me to add two new polls (see right). I know that most of you, being AutoCAD users, are also Windows users. I’m interested to know how often you exchange data (e.g. DWG, DXF, DWF, PDF, etc) with users of other operating systems, specifically Linux and Mac users. If you don’t exchange data with anyone then please leave the polls alone, but if you do exchange data but never with non-Windows users, please join in and say so!

When is a Service Pack not a Service Pack?

When it’s an Update. This year, Service Packs are called Updates, and the first one for AutoCAD is out now. The 32-bit version is here and the 64-bit version is here. The Update includes LT, but there is no news yet about Updates for any of the vertical AutoCAD variants.

As usual, read the Readme first. Also, as this Update has had a considerably shorter gestation period than the traditional six-month wait for the first AutoCAD Service Pack, you may be wise to exercise more paranoia than normal. Save and export your AutoCAD profiles, save your workspaces, make backups of your CUI files and put them somewhere safe where AutoCAD and the Update can’t find them.

Does the shortened time before the first Update indicate that there will be more Updates in store? Probably. Although Update 1 (U1) fixes a lot of stuff, there’s still plenty more stuff left to fix in 2009. Oh, and just because it says in the Readme that something is fixed, don’t take it for granted that your particular variant of that problem is fixed. Try it out for yourself.

I know that many of you don’t put an AutoCAD release into production until SP1 is released, so should you go now with U1 or wait for U2? (No, not the band). Or U3, even, if there ever is one? It’s up to you, of course, but in my own CAD management role I won’t be distributing AutoCAD 2009 with U1 to my users. I just don’t think it’s ready yet.

Autodesk and Bentley – kiss, kiss!

OK, so I’m a long way from being the first to comment on this, but maybe I’ll be the last? Don’t count on it. In the unlikely event that this is the only CAD blog you ever read, you may be unaware that Autodesk and Bentley have decided to swap code so their respective products can make a better job of writing each other’s drawing formats.

The MicroStation DWG interface has traditionally been imperfect. (I remember raising the ire of one of the Bentley brothers in person many years ago on the CompuServe ACAD forum when I described Bentley’s DWG/DXF interface developers as incompetent (accurately, I may add). The brother in question was one of the said developers…) The AutoCAD DGN interface (which was available in Map for many years before making it into AutoCAD) has been rather less perfect than that, so this move should lead to benefits for customers of both products in future releases. Whether or not it actually will improve matters remains to be seen. That relies on the future competence of both parties in using ‘foreign’ code. The first versions could be, er, interesting. Or maybe they’ll be great.

Assuming the best, who should we thank for this development? Autodesk? Bentley? Maybe not. I think we should thank the Open Design Alliance (ODA). If Autodesk hadn’t been so keen to do damage to the ODA in its belated but increasingly urgent battle to win complete control over DWG, do you think this would have ever happened? I don’t think so. It hadn’t happened in the preceding couple of decades.

Thank you, ODA, for making this happen. May you live long and prosper, and continue to apply pressure to improve interoperability for all. But in the interests of fairness, don’t you think you should at least mention this development in your newsroom?

Video – Deciphered lyrics

Here’s another video I have done to the music of Swedish metal band Opeth (the first one is here). This band’s latest album, Watershed, does not come with conventional lyrics in the booklet, but rather a page full of rune-type characters. There are actually two different pages in different editions of the album, and in order to work out the lyrics you need to rotate the pages, work out a substitution cipher and combine the two sources.

To save you the trouble of doing all that, here are the lyrics of Heir Apparent. This is the only song on the album that contains only angry Cookie Monster vocals (beware!), so without my expert deciphering efforts (ahem!) it would be rather difficult for the uninitiated to know what the song was all about. If you can put up with the vocals, I think you’ll enjoy this!

YouTube link.

You don’t think much of AutoCAD 2009’s buttons

I’ve closed the poll about the button images. It’s a general thumbs-down from you on that particular change, albeit not a spectacularly vehement one.

I agree with most of you. The images themselves don’t offend me greatly, but their role in making things harder to find means that Autodesk erected another unnecessary barrier to Ribbon acceptance. The images themselves have crisper edges, but are sadly devoid of colour, making them harder to tell apart. One exception is with the object snap buttons, which I consider an improvement over their predecessors.

More important than that is the fact that there were many, many things Autodesk could (and should) have done instead of putting development resources into this area. I know from personal experience that creating button images can be a very time-consuming job. I have some sympathy for the poor Autodesk people who put the effort into producing these images, only to have customers wishing they had never bothered. Nobody likes wasting their time.

This sort of thing (there are many other examples), makes it obvious that Autodesk needs to obtain customer feedback on design decisions much earlier in the development cycle, while there is still time to throw out the dumb ideas. Doing so would offer Autodesk a lot of potential for more efficiently targeting its resources, to the benefit of both Autodesk and its customers.

What’s the best thing about AutoCAD 2009?

It’s starting to look a bit negative around here, and it is only going to get more negative when I start describing the details of my still-unresolved Autodesk customer service debacle. So here’s something to provide a bit of balance.

What do you like best about AutoCAD 2009? What is better, faster, easier, more cool or just plain fixed when compared with the release you were using previously? I have a few ideas of my own, and will run a poll when I get a few suggestions from you.

Autodesk’s 12-month release cycle – Is it harmful?

I’ve opened a poll asking for your opinion about whether the 12-month release cycle of AutoCAD and its variants is harmful to the quality of the software that Autodesk is providing. I won’t express my own opinion on this subject here yet, but will do so later, once the poll is closed. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your opinions on the subject.

AutoCAD 2009 – Top reasons to be Ribbonless

I’ve closed the poll for those of you who are using 2009 with the Ribbon turned off to show us the reasons why. The top 10 choices were:

  1. Tab concept means extra clicks (65%)
  2. Uses up too much screen space (64%)
  3. No advantage over existing methods (64%)
  4. Dislike concept of hiding tools – want buttons to stay visible (60%)
  5. Too hard to find things (51%)
  6. Using it minimised requires an extra click/hover (47%)
  7. Doesn’t make good use of my screen size/shape (45%)
  8. Tab switching is too slow (45%)
  9. Customising it is too difficult (44%)
  10. Ribbon content doesn’t match my needs (44%)

I was hoping that the poll would help Autodesk in deciding how best to improve the Ribbon in future releases, but it’s pretty hard to do much about the top 7 choices here. Except number 2, perhaps; the Ribbon could be considerably tightened to remove waste space, in the same way as the excellent AutoCAD 2009 floating toolbars.

The new poll is slightly related to item 5 above. Autodesk combined the Ribbon with a change to the button images. Personally, I don’t think this was a good idea. If you move people’s stuff around, changing the appearance of that stuff is only going to make it harder to find things and reduce people’s acceptance of the changed interface. Enough of my opinion, what do you think?

I like Bill Gates a little more now

I recently enjoyed reading what appears to be a genuine and not at all atypical internal Microsoft email from Bill Gates. I always enjoy seeing an honest opinion expressed in a way that cuts through the glossy corporate PR image, and this one certainly does that. Actually, it reminds me of the sort of thing I write in MyFeedback when evaluating pre-release versions of AutoCAD. It’s honest, it’s negative or even cutting where it needs to be, it represents a real user’s viewpoint, and most of all, it’s useful.

I don’t think this sort of exposure does any harm at all to a company. It’s unlikely to change anybody’s opinion. Microsoft haters will still hate Microsoft, fanboys will still be fanboys. People like me who sit in the middle somewhere are likely to admire the honest self-evaluation shown here. Here’s the Big Cheese looking at things like a user. Great! I’m sure the spin merchants wince when something like this makes it into public view, but that can only be a good thing, right?

I’d like to think Carl Bass fires off this sort of email within Autodesk from time to time. If such a thing went public, would it hurt Autodesk? Absolutely not. Autodesk haters will still hate, fanboys will still, er, fan, but there will be no lasting measurable effect on Autodesk. I bet a lot of real world users would like Carl Bass a little more, though. Frustrated users would probably like him a lot more.

AutoCAD 2009 – How many people really are using the Ribbon?

I was interested to see Shaan Hurley reporting the Ribbon usage figures from the Customer Involvement Program (CIP). Shaan’s figures show Ribbon non-users at 46%, my poll results show it as 71%. Why the discrepancy? Is somebody telling fibs? I don’t think so.

First, blog nauseam poll respondents represent a biased sample, comprising people who are more interested in AutoCAD than average users. Dare I say more knowledgeable? More likely to be power users or CAD Managers, anyway. They are probably more likely than average users to make changes from the default AutoCAD settings. But Shaan’s CIP users are also a biased sample, comprising those AutoCAD users who have CIP turned on. Are users who go with the flow and have CIP on also more likely to go with the flow and leave the Ribbon on? Possibly, but I would have thought the CIP-on bias would be less significant than the blog-reader bias.

Second, Shaan’s sample size is likely to be very substantially larger than mine. I currently get about 5000 unique visitors to this site each month, with only up to about a hundred bothering to respond to a given poll. Shaan’s numbers are likely to be in the hundreds of thousands, and thus much less prone to a few people skewing the results.

Finally, the method of measurement differs. My poll is totally open and transparent, but requires active participation by the respondent. This means that the more strongly you feel about something, the more likely you are to be measured.

Shaan’s measurement method avoids that pitfall. However, because the details of the CIP measurement mechanism aren’t public, its accuracy is open to conjecture. For example, if somebody spends 8 hours working in a Ribbonless session and then tries out the Ribbon in another session for a few minutes, does that count as a score of 1-1, or is the time used taken into account? If somebody works Ribbonless except when using the Block Editor (personally, I think the Ribbon works well there), is a flag raised that says the Ribbon was used during the session? Does that then count as one Ribbon Session and no Ribbonless sessions? (Shaan, you’re very welcome to put that speculation to rest with some details of how it works). In any case, the number of part-time Ribbon users is likely to be small enough not to make a huge difference.

In summary, I’m quite prepared to accept that Shaan’s CIP numbers are likely to be closer to reality than my poll results. I think “about half and half” is a decent compromise answer to the question posed by the title of this post.

The question is, is that a good result? Shaan says he was surprised by the results, but doesn’t state whether he thought the Ribbon would be more or less popular than that. Before I ran my poll, I would have said that a significant minority, say a third of users, were going Ribbonless, and that a good result for the new interface would have been if less than 20% of AutoCAD 2009 users were going out of their way to turn it off. Whichever numbers you choose, the Ribbon is doing a lot worse than that. Why? Please fill in the poll on the right and let us all know. Whatever the reasons, we should be grateful that unlike many software companies, Autodesk has at least given us the choice.

Totally abysmal customer service from Autodesk

I’ve been dealing with Autodesk in various ways for 23 years and have had a variety of experiences as a result; some good, some bad. The provision of the license codes needed to keep AutoCAD running has historically been pretty good. No longer. I’m currently going through the worst Autodesk customer service experience in my career. I’ve been trying for many weeks to obtain a few codes, without success.

I’ll spare you the details for the time being to give Autodesk one last chance to come good. For now I’ll just say that a combination of restrictive policies, inflexibility in the administration of those policies and downright incompetence has left Autodesk’s Subscription service looking very poor indeed. It’s a shocking abuse of legitimate customers; something that pirate users don’t have to put up with.

Autodesk Asia Pacific Product Registration & Activation Centre, your efforts to date have not been anywhere close to adequate. Get your finger out and start providing some customer service. If you can’t do so, escalate it to someone who can. Now. Before I let on how I really feel.

Update: I would just like to clarify that I have no problem with the service provided at a dealer level.

AutoCAD 2009 – Why do you hate the Ribbon?

Judging from the results of the Ribbon usage poll (and the usual poll caveats apply), you are turning off AutoCAD 2009’s Ribbon in droves. I’m surprised. I thought there would be a significant minority of 2009 users who turned it off, but it looks I was wrong and it’s a large majority. The non-Ribbon numbers have hovered around the two-thirds mark right from the start and have now settled above the 70% mark. If nothing else, this validates Autodesk’s decision to make the Ribbon optional and keep all the old user interface elements.

Now I’m curious about the reasons. Why do so many of you dislike the Ribbon so much? Is it an unwillingness to change, a reaction against Microsoft’s influence, or are there more practical reasons? Is it screen space, extra picks, performance, customisation difficulties, difficulty in finding things, or something else? Did you turn it off straight away or did you give it a fair go first? Is the whole idea a write-off as far as you’re concerned, or is there something Autodesk could do that might convince you to use it?

Please comment and let me know. If I get enough responses, I’ll post a multiple-choice poll to get a better idea about how many of you have the various reasons for going Ribbonless.

The Ribbon Man interview – fluff?

Looking at the comments, it seems not everyone is happy with the Matt Stein interview. If so, I’m sorry you feel that way about the piece. In my own defence, I would point out the following:

  1. I like to think my work at Cadalyst represents a balanced viewpoint. I pride myself on being fair. Whether Autodesk deserves praise or criticism for something, I provide it. But an interview isn’t really the place to do that. An interview is supposed to be an opportunity for the interviewee to say things, not a platform for the interviewer’s opinions. My job as an interviewer is to extract information, not provide it. In my opinion, the best TV interviewers listen a lot and say very little. Confrontational interviewers can be fun to watch, though.
  2. I have many other opportunities, both here and in Bug Watch, to express viewpoints that may conflict with what Matt had to say. Matt doesn’t have a blog or a regular Cadalyst column, he has this one chance to put his point across to Cadalyst readers. I think it’s fair to let Matt make best use of that opportunity and not beat him down with a confrontational style.
  3. I think it’s important for readers to understand the thinking behind the user interface changes. You may not agree with Autodesk’s thinking (in fact, I often don’t), but if you know what the thinking is, you can argue against it more convincingly.
  4. I don’t want to go into too much detail about this because it involves private correspondence, but getting this interview published at all was an effort and a half. Anyone who wants to get access to an Autodesk employee’s comments for publication has to go through Autodesk’s PR people. While the people I dealt with were pleasant and cooperative, the pace at which things happened is best described as glacial.
  5. As a result, one of the first set of questions I asked and a whole set of follow-up questions didn’t get answered in time for publication. Cadalyst could have waited for that to happen before publishing, but AutoCAD 2010 would probably have come out first, rendering the answers somewhat irrelevant…
  6. With all that said, I actually agree that part 1 of the interview comes across as a bit soft on Autodesk. The very fact that Shaan Hurley thinks it’s unbiased is a bit of a worry. 😉 However, I think some of the questions in part 2 are fairly probing. Have a look around and see how many comments you can find by Autodesk employees that are critical in any way of the current product line-up. Getting a public admission that “Ribbon customisation should be easier” out of the AutoCAD Ribbon’s number one fanboy and past Autodesk’s PR people is, in relative terms, something of a triumph.

Enough from me, what would you have asked? Let’s hear what questions you think the interview is missing. Maybe there will be a chance to ask them one day.

AutoCAD 2009 – Ribbon content for Express Tools

One of the many unfinished aspects of the AutoCAD 2009 Ribbon is the lack of Express Tools content. One enterprising user has put the effort into correcting this, and has posted an Express Tools CUI replacement in this Autodesk newsgroup thread. I have not tested this myself. As usual with CUI, be paranoid. Back up everything before you touch anything.

While I wouldn’t normally suggest you do any Ribbon custom work in 2009 in its current state, it shouldn’t hurt in this case as it should be easily redoable once Autodesk has fixed up the worst of the 2009 CUI problems. Anything else you do should be considered as disposable. The problems with 2009’s CUI are so fundamental that it is quite likely a restructure will be required to fix them, either in a service pack or in 2010. That means your 2009 CUI efforts may need to be redone, just like your AutoCAD 2008 Dashboard modifications.