Cloud concerns – Security – Autodesk puts its arguments on line

I’ve made the point before that while Cloud proponents like Autodesk have been happy to talk big on the potential benefits, they have been conspicuously (suspiciously?) silent on the legitimate concerns their customers have raised. The best responses you have been likely to see regarding such concerns can best be characterised as “glossing over”.

So it’s good to see that Autodesk has put together a white-paper-type-thing called Autodesk® 360: Work Wherever You Are – Safely. This 275 KB PDF, with 5 pages of actual content, puts Autodesk’s point of view about one of the aspects of Cloud that people commonly raise as a concern. This is a good start, but of course there are quite a few potential dealbreakers that need addressing yet.

How well does this document address this issue? As you’d expect from Autodesk, it’s gung-ho positive, but there is at least some acknowledgement of Cloud concerns, e.g. “Customer experiences, however, can be largely impacted by the speed and quality of their Internet connection”. In addition to such occasional connections with the real world, there are some categorical assurances that may make some potential users happier. Here are some examples:

Autodesk 360 is delivered from data centers in the United States.

Files and identities are safe during storage, transit, and usage.

As part of Autodesk‟s due diligence for customer security and protection, prospective Autodesk personnel with potential access to sensitive data are screened through background checks before being employed.

Once purged, your data may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time but will not be recovered or read by anyone.

Customers own the content they create.

While that’s all well and good, Autodesk needs to get its legal team reading off the same page and fix up its terms and conditions to make them less anti-customer. Otherwise, this virtual document is worth more less than the virtual paper it’s written on. Some parts of the document are only superficially reassuring:

Any access to customer data or personal information is strictly governed by the Autodesk 360 Terms of Service (http://www.autodesk.com/termsofservice) Autodesk‟s Privacy Policy (http://usa.autodesk.com/privacy/), and internal procedures.

While that sounds fine on the face of it, Autodesk has violated its own Privacy Policy in the recent past and to the best of my knowledge, nothing ever came of it. That assurance is therefore rendered completely worthless by Autodesk’s own history. Add to that the fact that both the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy are extremely rubbery and rather one-sided, and this statement becomes more of a concern than a reassurance.

Other parts of the document are contradictory. Take these statements, for example:

Working in the cloud is all about reducing the hassles and headaches that companies and employees would rather avoid, like …. Managing data security and backups

It’s good practice, however, to personally observe safety and security wherever and whenever you are using Autodesk 360 …. Download and back up work locally in a secure environment.

Cloud’s great because it saves you having to make backups. However, make sure you make backups of the stuff you put on the Cloud. Hmm, okay…

So what do you think of this document? Is it all spin or does it address your security concerns? If it addresses your concerns, does it do so to your satisfaction? Please have a read and add your comments.

Trebling upgrade prices was not enough for Autodesk

A blog post from BIM person Gregory Arkin contains a number of confidently-made statements about what Autodesk intends to do with its upgrade and Subscription pricing model. If the information is correct, the news is all bad for customers. The prices for both upgrade and Subscription are getting jacked up substantially. In fact, for upgraders the pricing (70% of full whack for the cheapest upgrade) will be completely non-viable and you’ll effectively be forced onto Subscription. This goes beyond the trebling of upgrade prices that Autodesk’s Callan Carpenter spent some time defending here two years ago. The link in that post to the relevant Autodesk page doesn’t contain any pricing specifics other than the vague statement “save up to 20%”, but I’ll take Gregory’s word for it.

Gregory sees this business of upgraders being hunted to extinction as something that Subscription customers should have a good laugh about, but he’s wrong. Resellers can have a chuckle, but Subscription customers should mourn the lack of choice for customers. It means customers are no longer able to compare Subscription with any kind of sane upgrade pricing and make a decision about the best option for them. This lack of internal ‘competition’ is not even worth a snigger, because it inevitably means Subscription prices shooting up. Autodesk has racked up Subscription prices already and will do so again next year. For those customers who have fallen for the ‘free’ upgrade-to-suite offers, their Subscription prices will be higher again. With everyone on Subscription, Autodesk will just keep pushing up prices indefinitely. From Autodesk’s point of view, there is no down side to this; tie people in and the gravy train goes on for ever.

There are various terms in common use for this kind of thing. One is price gouging. Anybody who has ever booked a hotel near a big sporting event or bought drinks at a nightclub will be familiar with the realities of businesses doing this whenever they can get away with it. It’s part of the free market and generally perfectly legal, no matter how unpopular it makes the business. However, it only works when competition is effectively absent and customers are left with no realistic alternative but to pay up. Autodesk obviously thinks it is in such a position. Is it right? Sadly, history says it probably is.

Edit: This post originally stated that Gregory is a reseller. He has informed me that this is no longer the case and I have edited the post accordingly. My apologies to Gregory for the misstatement.

Should Autodesk provide a CHM version of its AutoCAD 2013 Help?

I’ve added a poll asking this question over on the right. I would like to see this done as soon as possible as a courtesy for those customers who find the current AutoCAD 2013 Help system inadequate. If you agree, vote Yes. If you disagree (for example, you think Autodesk should instead concentrate on improving the current system), vote No. If you wish to make a comment on this specific issue, feel free.

Autodesk edges towards taking money for Cloud services

In an email to Subscription customers, Autodesk made several announcements about its Autodesk 360 Cloud services.

  1. Subscription users now get 25 GB per seat of Cloud storage, up from 3 GB. Non-Subscription users who create an Autodesk 360 account get 3 GB. The intent here, as with the trebling of upgrade costs, is to get you hooked on Subscription so you become a permanent revenue stream.
  2. More services are now available, apparently, but the list of services looks about the same to me. The table that lists which services are available for which products can be found here. If you’re an AutoCAD user, the only service available is Autodesk 360 Rendering.
  3. The services are now metered. You get a certain number of “cloud units”, and these are eaten up as you use the services. A standard AutoCAD user (with Subscription) gets 100 units. Each render costs you 5 units, so effectively you get 20 on-line renders per seat. That’s enough for a taster, but if Cloud rendering is as brilliant as Autodesk says it is, you’ll soon use that allocation up.
  4. The metering doesn’t mean anything – yet. If you use up all your units, it doesn’t matter. You can go on using more of them as long as you’re on Subscription.
  5. This free lunch will end as soon as Autodesk says so, or as soon as it puts a mechanism in place to charge you for units. No news yet on when that might be, but as parting you from your money is obviously the whole point of the exercise, I can’t imagine it will be too far in the future.

Autodesk reserves the right to change all of this without notice, and to terminate access to Autodesk 360 services at any time and for any reason.

Trusting Autodesk – poll results

I have closed the polls asking if you trusted various companies to do the right thing by their customers. Here is a summary of the results, showing the percentage of “Yes” votes for each company. The most trusted company is at the top, the least trusted is at the bottom.

  1. Honda 69%
  2. Amazon 65%
  3. Target 52%
  4. Bricsys 43%
  5. Apple 36%
  6. Autodesk 23%

Remember, this is not a scientific poll and as with all polls and surveys there will be some self-selection bias. Does anyone find anything about the above results surprising?

ClassicArray Registration Service

When you register ClassicArray, you are supposed to receive an automated response with the registration code. I have not been able to get this working reliably, so for some customers I have been sending out the email manually. Personal circumstances dictate that I will be unable to do this promptly for much of April, so if you purchase ClassicArray and do not receive your code immediately, please accept my apologies in advance.

I will also not be able to be very active on this blog for much of April.

AutoCAD 2013 – An Autodesk Help writer responds

Following some email discussions, I am happy to present a response from a relevant Autodesk person to the posts and comments here about AutoCAD 2013’s Help.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond to your readers, Steve.

First, I want to assure you that we’re listening to your comments about AutoCAD 2013 Help. We are adding it to the valuable feedback we’ve already received from users who participated in our Beta program. I responded promptly to every comment from each Beta user and will now address a wider audience.

Here are some of the trends we’ve seen so far in the suggestions users are making about AutoCAD Help:

  • Additional navigation to supplement our Search function
  • Alphabetical listings of AutoCAD commands and system variables
  • Improved precision from the Search function
  • Access to information about new features

We are working right now on our update plans. We invite your additional comments about any other problems you’ve had so that we can have a broad view of your needs as we define the scope of our update.

I’m glad to say that Help updates will no longer have to wait until the next product release. I’d also like to emphasize that the software industry, Autodesk included, is trending toward online delivery of both software and documentation, and that these technology changes pose significant challenges to all of us.

We always appreciate your feedback and we take it seriously.

Thanks and best regards,

Dieter Schlaepfer
Principal Content Developer
Autodesk, Inc.

As Dieter suggests, please comment here with your problems and suggestions. Please be as brutally honest as you wish about Autodesk, its offerings and its future plans. However, I ask that you remain civil. I have ‘known’ Dieter on-line for about 20 years and can attest to his integrity, intelligence and intense desire to do the best job possible. He did indeed respond very fully and honestly to the comments made by myself and others during the Beta program and in our emails. He may very well be the best listener I’ve ever come across, in any context.

In short, Dieter’s one of the good guys and he’s doing a brave thing here. Let him know what you really think, but please don’t beat him up.

AutoCAD 2013 – Using Help in anger

Trying to be fair, I decided to put aside my initial hostility to the AutoCAD 2013 Help system and use it for real. I used it in a realistic situation, to find out how to work with something new or changed (model documentation) as I was working through it with my own example drawing. Try as I might to give it a fair go, I could only get so far before I got irritated. Using it in anger might not be an entirely appropriate phrase for it, but it’s not that far off. Using it in annoyance, perhaps? Here’s how it went.

I hit F1, wait for it to finish loading itself, click in the search box (because that’s not where the focus is to start with), type ‘model documentation’ and pick Search (because Enter doesn’t work). I then wait again, for about 10 seconds, even though I’ve configured it for offline use. Eventually, there is a huge mass of results displayed, almost all of which are totally (totally!) irrelevant to model documentation. Most of them are relevant only to ARX programmers dealing with completely unrelated matters.

If I use the “phrase” option rather than “and”, the list is much shorter and has a much higher proportion of results that have some relevance, but there are still completely pointless results. For example, the 4th result is About Performance Considerations (AutoLISP), which does not contain the phrase at all. It does contain the words ModelSpace and Document, but not together. It does not contain any information remotely related to model documentation. Didn’t Autodesk buy a search technology company a while back? If that company’s technology is in use here, then Autodesk bought a dud.

At least the top two results directly relate to what I need, so I’ll move on with those. They are Commands for Working With Model Documentation Drawing Views and About Model Documentation. The content of the former page is OK; it’s just a list of commands. There is some pointlessly wasted space at the top of the page that means I have to scroll down to see the bottom of the list, but other than that it serves as a useful reference. The latter page is also fine. It’s an executive summary of the feature with a few relevant pictures, followed by a decent set of links pointing to relevant pages that expand on the subject and explain how to do various tasks associated with it. Now I have overcome the inadequacies of Search and determined that useful Help content is all there, that’s all good then, isn’t it? Not really, I’m afraid.

If Help was being run from a real browser, I’d be able to keep both of those starting pages open with their useful links, then middle-click on each of them as needed to open each useful page in a new tab. However, Help isn’t being run like that. It’s being run from inside Autodesk’s pseudo-browser thing, which only allows one page at a time to be displayed. To be fair, this restriction also applies to the old CHM-based Help to some extent. However, the old CHM Help is split into multiple sections, and it is possible to have multiple CHMs each open in their own windows. For example, I can have the AutoCAD 2010 main Help and Developer Documentation open at the same time, something that’s very important for my productivity and which I would find extremely difficult to give up.

To work around the tabless nature of 2013 Help, I need to choose one particular page and stick to it. When I need another page, I need to navigate back up to one of the original links pages and then back down again. That would be bad enough if navigation within the pseudo-browser was good, but unfortunately it isn’t. Despite what looks like a breadcrumb feature at the top of the page, this is non-functional because of the lack of a hierarchical structure to the content. It just keeps taunting me by saying ‘Home’ and nothing else, pointlessly wasting a swathe of vertical space. There are back and forward buttons in that space, but the back and forward mouse buttons I can use everywhere else do nothing in this browser. You can use Alt+Left and Alt+Right to back and forward. Don’t go too far back, though! If you do, the Search panel goes blank and can’t be restored by going forward again, or by switching between Favorites and Search. To fix this, you can close and restart Help , or pick the Home button and wait about 6 seconds for it to get its act together and restore the Search panel. Then you’ll be at the home page, which may not be where you wanted to go back to.

All right, so I have chosen the single page I’m allowed to have open and I want to use the features it describes. This test PC only has a single 1280 x 1024 screen so there really isn’t room for both AutoCAD and Help at the same time, a situation that will be familiar to users of notebooks. I click on the AutoCAD drawing area behind the Help window, expecting AutoCAD to come to the top and to go behind it. Nothing happens, other than Help losing focus. Help stays on top, obscuring the drawing area. If I click the main AutoCAD taskbar button (this is in XP), that minimizes both Help and AutoCAD. Restoring AutoCAD also restores Help, so it still obscures the drawing area. The two windows are linked, and not in a good way for somebody with one screen. I guess some users will want Help to stay on top, but there are plenty of others who won’t, so what could Autodesk have done to keep everybody happy? Made it configurable, obviously.

Eventually I worked out that I could work on AutoCAD if I explicitly minimised the Help window, so away I went. I used the Commands for Working… page, then the VIEWBASE page to start my model documentation experiment. I then picked another link from the VIEWBASE page, the Drawing View Creation Ribbon Contextual Tab page. Having finished with that, I wanted to get back to the Commands for Working… page, so instead of picking multiple Back buttons (which as noted above is fraught with danger if you do it too often), I clicked on that result in the Search panel on the left. Did this take me back to the Commands for Working… page? No, it did not. It did nothing at all. To make it work I had to click another search result first, and only then the one I really wanted.

One saving grace is that I discovered that if I right-clicked on a link in Help, I could copy the URL and then paste it into a proper browser. This works both on and offline, and allowed me to work around many of the problems noted above. This kludge doesn’t work for search results, though, only for links in pages.

I’ve given AutoCAD 2013 Help a decent go, as much as the average reasonable person would before giving up. Maybe more so. I feel pretty comfortable about giving it what I consider a fair assessment. The content of the Help pages itself looks pretty good to me, at least for those pages I visited and the context in which I was using them. If you already know what command you’re supposed to be using, you just hit F1 from within that command to get at the page you want and you don’t need to go any further, you could well be satisfied. But if you’re using the system in any other way, there’s no getting away from it, it’s a crock. The content is not the problem, it’s the loss of structure to that content, and the browser thing being used to present that content. That loss of structure was A Bad Idea and the browser is a very poor effort. The system as a whole should not have been inflicted on customers.

As a courtesy, Autodesk should do what it did following the 2011 Help debacle and provide a CHM solution for customers to download. It should then go on providing a CHM solution indefinitely, until it can come up with something that is of comparable quality. People are already talking about making their own 2013 CHMs. Autodesk, please do the right thing and save them the bother; let us all know that you’re going to provide CHM as a workaround and get it to us as soon as you can. Don’t worry about losing face by admitting that the 2013 Help isn’t up to scratch. It’s too late for that; we’ve already noticed.

AutoCAD 2013 – Help improved in one area

There’s one important area in which AutoCAD 2013’s Help shines when compared with its immediate predecessors. If you’re a Visual LISP user, you’ll be pleased to know that if you select a function name in the editor (e.g. (vla-get-ActiveDocument)) and hit Ctrl+F1, this now takes you to the appropriate page in the ActiveX and VBA Reference, as it should. In AutoCAD 2011 you just got a cryptic message or a 404 error, depending on the context. In AutoCAD 2012, you were just taken to the front page of Help and expected to find it yourself. Props to Autodesk for fixing this problem.

As a bonus, the reference you’re taken to is still a CHM so it works nicely. The Search tab doesn’t work in Windows 7, but that applies to all CHM Help and it’s Microsoft’s fault, not Autodesk’s. The structured contents and index are fully functional, which makes the whole thing usable even without the search facility.

Autodesk’s Kean about moving to the Cloud

Autodesk’s API guru Kean Walmsley is the second Autodesk person I’ve seen who has been brave enough to stick his head above the parapet by discussing the Cloud, in writing, and in a medium that allows for public comment. Kean has always seemed like a straight shooter to me. Please note that his blog represents his personal opinions rather than an official Autodesk position. He’s after your comments, so please go and let him know what you think on his post. Add your comments here if you’re more comfortable with that, and I’ll make sure Kean sees them.

AutoCAD 2013 – Autodesk video tutorial for Help

Autodesk has produced a 2-minute video explaining the features of the new Help system in AutoCAD 2013 that I recently panned. As you might expect, it’s kind of upbeat and chirpy, but the fact that Autodesk feels the need to provide a tutorial on how to use Help says it all, really. Whatever, it may be useful to you, so here it is. It’s hosted on the Autodesk site, unlike many other Autodesk videos (and my own, to be fair), so those of you who have YouTube blocked at work may still be able to watch it.

If you’re having trouble watching the tutorial, don’t panic. I expect Autodesk will soon produce another tutorial explaining how to use the tutorial explaining how to use Help explaining how to use the product to actually do work.

Autodesk acquires Angry Birds developer Rovio

Autodesk announced today that it had welcomed Rovio Entertainment into the Autodesk fold. Following a US$2.6 billion acquisition, the publisher of mega hit video game Angry Birds is now Autodesk’s Mobile Entertainment division based in Espoo, Finland. “This is a tremendously exciting development for Autodesk going forward,” said Autodesk CEO Carl Bass. “Rovio is the world leader in mobile entertainment software,” he added, “so for Autodesk to have access to that market and that technology opens up a whole new world for us.”

Bass was effusive about the synergistic benefits of the merger and the benefits it will bring to the user interfaces of all Autodesk products. “When a kid starts playing Angry Birds, they don’t need to read a huge mass of documentation. Just show them a few cartoons and they’re away, instantly productive. This is the essence of the democratization of design; it’s not dumbing down, it’s funning up.” This potential ease of use is excellent news for AutoCAD users, because the documentation is now so terrible that it will be wonderful if we no longer have to try to use it.

Former Rovio CEO, Taikke Monniennren, now Autodesk Vice President in charge of Mobile Entertainment, is equally excited about the future. “We have already been given access to the Autodesk code base and my developers can see the potential there. By copying and pasting some code modules, we hope to be able to piece together the Angry Birds 3D Max Suite in a few short years,” said Monniennren. “The main challenge will be in keeping the download size manageable, but with a bit of luck we will be able to keep it down to just a few gigabytes.” In comparison, the original Angry Birds game was just over a megabyte.

“Do not underestimate the strategic importance of this announcement,” said Bass. “Although it may come as an unpleasant surprise to our competitors, our customers are well aware that this is the direction we have been moving for some time now.” This is true. Autodesk is doing whatever it can to appear young, hip, cool, trendy, mobile, social and just totally with it, man. It has been talking and sometimes acting big on Cloud and mobile computing for a while. Clearly, acquiring Visual Tao (now AutoCAD WS) was just the beginning.

Who would dare to call Autodesk antisocial? Autodesk videos are all over YouTube. On Twitter, many key Autodesk people tweet many times a day. The recent AutoCAD 2013 launch in San Francisco was done entirely via Facebook (which enhanced Autodesk’s green credentials by allowing a reduction in the number of press and bloggers flown in from around the world to only 120). The first thing a new AutoCAD 2013 user sees on installation is a Welcome screen that is largely dedicated to Autodesk pushing its app store and Facebook and Twitter pages. Because the Welcome screen phones home on each use, Autodesk can easily slip in new links to any other sites it wishes to promote. I expect your AutoCAD 2013 Welcome screen will sport Angry Birds gaming links within a few days. Angry Birds gaming plug-ins for AutoCAD and related products are likely to appear in the app store soon, but I expect we will have to wait for AutoCAD 2014 until the games become part of the core product.

Clearly for Autodesk, kids are the new adults. But is what spoiled teenagers do on their iPhones really a sound basis for the needs of professional CAD users in a corporate environment? How well does this concept work in practice? Bass answered that by showing a prototype user interface for AutoCAD that uses the new technology. He demonstrated it on a 48″ touch-screen, but it is believed that it will be at least partly functional using old-fashioned mouse-based technology.

Bass started by selecting a red bird from the Ribbon, which sported a snazzy new flouro theme. He dragged the bird down into the drawing area (which had a beautiful animated background with kittens, rainbows and unicorns; let’s hope that makes into production). While this was going on, the system was providing haptic feedback, with the screen vibrating and the bird squawking when dragged close enough to an existing object. By dropping the bird close to the end of a line, Bass was able to start drawing a line from exactly that point. He then drew back the bird and released it such that it was launched in the direction he wanted the line to go. As the bird shot forward, Bass touched it just as it crossed another line and it snapped on to the midpoint with a happy chirp. Perfect!

He then demonstrated other birds in action. To draw a polyline you use the yellow bird and touch it at each vertex as it flings itself along your desired path. To explode a block you use the black bird, triggering a loud explosion which I think will have to be toned down for office use. Ellipse? That white chicken thing that lays an egg. Multileader? The little grey one that splits up when you touch it. And so on. Bass already has his Finnish developers hard at work devising hundreds of new birds that cover most of AutoCAD’s key functionality. Some unimportant features, such as plotting and xrefs, are difficult to translate into birds and will be deprecated into command-line-only versions before being dropped completely in a future release.

The demonstration had to be curtailed after a few minutes when Bass’s arms became too tired for him to continue, but it provided an enticing view of a future where CAD is fun, fun, fun! Addicted users are productive users, according to Bass. “If you’ve ever seen kids playing Angry Birds, you know that they will happily sit there playing it all day every day without complaint. They don’t even stop to eat. The only time they take a break is when they’re forced to visit the bathroom. Even when they’re in there they will probably photograph themselves in the mirror and post it on Facebook. CAD Managers, don’t you wish you could tap that astronomical productivity resource?”

According to Bass, those managers will soon be able to do exactly that. His advice is, “Fire the old fuddy-duddy naysaying Luddites who are allergic to change and replace them with a bunch of kids off the streets. Give them Autodesk software they can’t resist using and they’ll soon be flinging pixels around like there’s no tomorrow. You’ll have an instant office full of the cheapest engineers you’ll ever find, and they’ll be begging you to take their work home with them. With the literally infinite anytime anywhere power of Autodesk 360, they’ll be able to do exactly that. In a few years, the kids in hoodies you see hanging around shopping malls won’t be waiting to snatch your bag, they’ll be leeching wi-fi so they can design your next car on their phones. And they’ll be doing it using Autodesk software.”

Bass refused to be drawn on leaked details about the upcoming iPod Shuffle version of AutoCAD or its supposed marketing slogan Shake to Design, though. “We have a very strict policy of never discussing our plans for future products,” he explained, “except when it suits us.”

The marketing gurus at Autodesk have written an independent productivity report that shows that AutoCAD with the new interface improves productivity by 632.7%. On Windows only, that is. This productivity phenomenon will not apply to AutoCAD for Mac, because there are no plans to provide the Angry Birds interface on OS X. Autodesk believes that this won’t concern Apple users, because Macs are shiny and look really nice.

The impressive productivity figure was generated by performing carefully selected tasks on AutoCAD 2013 using the prototype interface, when using the latest, fastest and most expensive hardware. This was then compared with completely different tasks performed using AutoCAD 1.4. On a twin-floppy IBM PC. With a 12″ monochrome monitor driven by CGA. But without an 8087. The resultant percentage was then multiplied by the number of years since Autodesk produced an AutoCAD feature that wasn’t half-baked on release.

In related news, Autodesk’s legal department has lodged applications to register the words ‘Angry’, ‘Birds’ and all images of feathered flying creatures as Autodesk trademarks. Cease-and-desist notices have already been sent to publishers of ornithologist guide books. Also in Autodesk’s legal sights is Disney Corporation, which clearly violates Autodesk’s intellectual property rights with its depiction of Donald Duck as not just a bird, but frequently as an angry one who goes around smashing things up.

The last word goes to Bass. “Look, the trend is irresistible, and those who can’t keep up will be left behind. Here at Autodesk we believe in freedom of choice. You can either choose to follow our vision of the future, or take to the streets with a cardboard sign and a chipped enamel mug. What could be more democratic than that?”

AutoCAD 2013 – Autodesk pulls off a miracle with Help

In AutoCAD 2011, Autodesk introduced on-line Help. It was badly done and poorly received. It was slow and generally awful to use, and so obviously inferior to the generally well-crafted old CHM-based system in so many ways, that there were squeals of joy when somebody discovered that one of the AutoCAD-based vertical products hadn’t been updated to the new regime and still provided a CHM file. That file became hot property, being posted by users on Autodesk’s own discussion groups and other places. Eventually, the outcry was loud enough that Autodesk was forced to make the CHM version of Help available for download. Those of us who actually use the documentation from time to time (or support people who do) breathed a sigh of relief and got on with our work, grateful that Autodesk had seen the error of its ways. But had it, really?

No. In AutoCAD 2012, Help was not only online, but integrated with AutoCAD Exchange in Autodesk’s dodgy version of a pseudo-browser. How good is Autodesk at writing browsers? About as good as you’d expect, sadly. No AutoCAD 2012 CHM was provided with the product at launch time, or even later as a download.

So how well did this new and improved attempt at on-line Help go down with the punters? In my poll on the worst AutoCAD features of all time, Help (on line / 2012) came in third, which gives you some idea. Third worst of all time! That’s a really, really bad place to be. There’s only one place to go from there, surely?

With AutoCAD 2013, Autodesk has wrought a miracle, taking this terrible failure of a system and completely revamping it. Somehow, incredibly, impossibly, Autodesk has managed to make it even worse. Not slightly worse, either. Much worse. AutoCAD Help has been plucked from the depths of mediocrity and plunged deeper still, to a dark place where the pressure of awfulness is so great that spontaneous implosion is a real risk.

Enough rhetoric, what’s actually wrong with it?

  1. It’s online by default. That means it’s slow and can’t possibly be 100% reliable. This is an example of Autodesk pushing its ‘vision’ at the expense of the practical needs of its customers. Nothing new there, then.
  2. Like many of Autodesk software’s attempts to access the Internet, it has been written poorly, such that it attempts to access IPs directly instead of using calls that will work correctly through a proxy server with firewall. As a result, it fails completely in some secure corporate environments. Mine, for example.
  3. Never mind, let’s just go and tell it to use the offline version instead. Turn off the Options > System > Help and Welcome Screen > Access online content when available toggle, hit F1 and see what happens. This does:
    What? You mean it’s not already installed? I have to download and install it separately myself? To be fair, during installation, you are kind of warned about this with a little information glyph. Hover over it and you will see this:OK, for an individual user that’s a drag, but for a CAD Manager with a large number of computers to set up, that’s way beyond inconvenient. Not to mention a user that’s in a location where online access is expensive, intermittent and/or absent. It would not have been at all hard to include offline Help in a 2013 install, and the fact that a deliberate decision was made to not do so smacks of arrogance. Assuming this worked properly, this situation would reflect pretty badly on Autodesk. But it’s worse than that; read on.
  4. Once the offline Help has been downloaded and installed, let’s try hitting F1 again.  This is what I saw:A little investigative work proved that the Help files were not located in the C:\Program Files\Autodesk\AutoCAD 2013\Help location, but rather in C:\Program Files\Autodesk\AutoCAD 2013 Help\English\Help. That’s right, Autodesk requires you to perform two installations, one of which apparently places files in a different location from that in which the other will go looking. Luckily, instead of going round moving files or changing settings, I just restarted AutoCAD and the problem went away. It’s quite possible I would never have seen the problem if I had done the second installation while AutoCAD wasn’t running, but it’s quite likely that many users will download and install in exactly that situation. The result is confusion, the impression given is amateurish.
  5. When you finally do get to get something other than error messages, this is it:Where’s the User Guide? Command Reference? Customization Guide? Gone. There’s no structure to it. It’s basically just a huge mass of web pages you’re expected to search through. There is no index, no contents, no list of commands, nothing. You want to find Help on something, you go search for it. Not sure exactly what the name is of the feature or command you’re searching for? Bad luck.
  6. You know what Autodesk’s search mechanisms are like, right? Yes, this one sucks too. Beginner? Want to draw a line? In AutoCAD 2010, in the Index tab, start typing LINE and the item appears at the top of the list. Double-click it and you’re there. In AutoCAD 2013, enter LINE in the search box, pick the button and this is what you see:

    So where’s the LINE command? It’s not even on the first page of results. You need to scroll down to find it. No, I’m not kidding. To add insult to injury, unlike every other Windows scroll bar I’ve seen, the one in the search results panel doesn’t page down when you click under the button, it just scrolls a single line at a time. It was probably pretty hard to program it to do that.
  7. Once you’ve got to a page and you want to get around a bit, usability is poor. By default, the search item is highlighted so the title of the LINE page, for example, will display as white on a yellow background. Very readable. There is a general lack of controls, and navigation is awkward and slow. Without a hierarchical structure and no breadcrumb feature, it’s difficult to get an idea where you are and what subjects might also be useful to look at. The tabs that we had in 2010 are gone. There are links to related references and concepts, but they’re at the bottom of each page. If you can see that the page you’re in is not useful to you, you have a bunch of scrolling to before you get to those links. The back and forward buttons on my mouse don’t work here, although they work fine everywhere else.

I could go on and on with the faults, but this post is already a monster so I’ll stop there. It’s difficult to think of ways in which this could have been done worse, but I’m sure Autodesk is working on it for 2014. Seriously, this is just embarrassing.

Autodesk, it’s not as if your software is cheap or sells in tiny quantities. You’re not short of the resources you need to do a good job, yet your AutoCAD Help system is so ridiculously inferior to that of numerous freeware and shareware applications that it’s not funny. What on earth were you thinking when you spewed out this rubbish? Did you think we wouldn’t notice?

You obviously want to convince your customer base that you’re all on-line trendy and capable of providing great Internet-based solutions that will have people flocking to use your Cloud stuff. OK, start by getting your finger out and making this stuff work. After three releases, you can’t do an acceptable job at something so seemingly tailor-made for online use as a bunch of text, images and video (which pretty much describes the World Wide Web). What kind of job can you be trusted to do with something much more difficult, such as CAD on the Cloud?

AutoCAD 2013 – Download from Subscription without Akamai

This year, Autodesk appears to have finally got its act together in terms of making software downloads and serial numbers available to Subscription customers quickly after the AutoCAD release. For me at least, the serial numbers and downloads were available as soon as I looked for them, so Autodesk deserves praise for improving matters considerably when compared with the last couple of years.

If you’re a Subscription customer about to download AutoCAD 2013, you may be wondering how you can avoid the awful Akamai Download Manager. If you go to the download page, scroll through the various languages and find the product you’re interested in, you will see a Download Now button. Do not click it, because that will trigger an Akamai infestation. Instead, click on the down arrow to the right of the button. That will give you the option of performing a Browser Download. Click that and away you go.

Subscription Download 

The download sizes listed on the site are nearly double the real size of the downloaded files. The 32-bit version is actually 0.98 GB, not 1.89 GB. When you run the executable, it will unzip itself to expand to that size, but that’s not the size you need to know about when you’re downloading something.

In my case, the download happened at rather less than half the speed at which the trial came down (taking over 30 minutes for the 32-bit version rather than 13 minutes), but that’s not a valid comparison as I used a different Internet connection and a different browser. The file I downloaded from Subscription was byte-for-byte identical to the equivalent file downloaded as a trial.

AutoCAD 2013 – Download the trial without Akamai

It’s AutoCAD new release time again and many of you will want to get hold of the trial software, or download the production software from the trial site rather than the Subscription site for performance or other reasons (the resultant downloads are identical). As in previous years, Autodesk is heavily pushing the use of the Akamai Download Manager to download it, going to what I consider unethical lengths to do so. For a variety of reasons, some of which I’m not at liberty to discuss and others of which I have already discussed extensively, I strongly recommend not installing this software. In my view, it is a very bad idea to let anything by Akamai anywhere near your computer. If you’re in a secure corporate environment, it’s quite likely that you won’t be able to do so, or if you can, that it won’t work anyway.

Although the Autodesk download process gives every impression that you have no choice in the matter, this is not true. In the past I have had to install an unsupported browser (Opera) to get at a straightforward download link, but this time it is possible to get the software without having to resort to that. Here’s what to do. Go to http://usa.autodesk.com/autocad/trial/, fill in the form and click the Download Now button. You will be presented with this screen:

Avoiding Akamai

This is a pack of lies. Ignore everything except the line that says If you cannot complete the installation, click here. Click that and you will see this:

Avoiding Akamai

The feedback link takes you to Akamai’s site so it’s probably not useful as a mechanism to let Autodesk know what you think of its use of the Akamai Download Manager. I have used it in the past and it’s a black hole, so don’t waste your time there.

As you can see, there may not be an OK button visible, but if you scroll down you will see it. Click it.

Avoiding Akamai

That will get you to this screen:

Avoiding Akamai

More misleading stuff here, but the important thing is the text that says Click here to download using your browser. Click that and you can start actually downloading the installation executable.

The links I eventually got to using this process were:

http://trial.autodesk.com/SWDLDDLM/2013/ACD/ESD/AutoCAD_2013_English_Win_32bit.exe
http://trial.autodesk.com/SWDLDDLM/2013/ACD/ESD/AutoCAD_2013_English_Win_64bit.exe

At home, using Firefox 11.0, each download took just under a quarter of an hour without using any special download manager software. These links may not work for you and your experience may vary depending on your browser, location and language.

Oh, and Autodesk, the 2013 trial download page is still called AutoCAD 2012 – Free Trial – Download AutoCAD Trial – Autodesk and contains a link to the 2012 download FAQ. You might want to change that. You might also want to change the wording on the messages shown above to something less deceptive, especially if you’re interested in how much your customers trust you in future. Finally, I strongly suggest you give up on pushing this Akamai junk. Please.

AutoCAD 2013 – What’s new?

As AutoCAD 2013 (yes, that’s what it’s called, shock, horror!) has now been released in Japan (Google translation), I can start to discuss it. I’m not yet free to go into details about anything that does not have publicly released information avaialable, but here’s a brief summary of what I can say. I will discuss some of these things in more detail later.

  • It has a powerful tool for mosquito aggregation (allows you to effortlessly gather together a Cloud of bugs)

OK, I’m kidding around, that’s just the Google translator struggling a little. Let’s get serious and list some new things that are easy enough to understand from the translation:

  • Command-line options that you can click on (could be good, depends on how it performs)
  • Other command-line changes (you can see in some of the screenshots that the command line now looks very different)
  • Property editing preview (similar to the Microsoft Office feature where you can hover over a user interface element and have the contents dynamically show you the changes before you confirm with a click)
  • Viewport preview of the changes (same kind of thing but with viewport display)
  • View and cross-sectional view detailed diagram (Model Documentation improvements including sections and details)
  • Strikethrough in text, leaders, tables, etc. (some will find this very useful)
  • Inventor file import (again, useful to some if it works well)
  • Latest user templates (updated with new title blocks, styles, etc.)
  • Boundary stretching tool according to the situation (PressPull improvements)
  • Extract the surface dividing line (looks like you can pick a point on a surface and have a line generated on it)
  • More context-sensitive Ribbon tabs have been added
  • Tool palettes can now be migrated (not that I trust Migration with anything)
  • Autodesk Cloud connection (you can export drawings to the Cloud; more on this in later posts)
  • Social media connection (I’m sure you’re all delighted to see Facebook and Twitter incorporated into AutoCAD; this makes perfect sense in a production environment)
  • Windows Vista is no longer supported. You can use XP or Windows 7, but not the OS inbetween.

Here are some things that are not so easy to understand from the translation, so I won’t be commenting on them for now:

  • Customize synchronization and support files
  • Application of AutoCAD Autodesk Exchange

There are also several things listed that are specific to AutoCAD 2013 for Mac. The additional functionality here is because it’s still playing catch-up to fill in some of the many functionality holes, but there are still plenty of obvious holes left (e.g. DCL):

  • Project Manager (the Sheet Set Manager)
  • Multi-Edit Hatch
  • Leader line that is included in the text up to the front
  • PDF underlay

So, AutoCAD users, what do you think? In the days before you were financially press-ganged into Subscription, would you have called this a Compelling Upgrade? The sort of thing you would berate your boss to upgrade to? Anything there reach out and grab you?

Software as a service is great…

…for some things. The other day, I amused myself by creating a video using a site called Xtranormal. You’ve probably seen 3D cartoon-like videos of people with stilted voices. It’s done by signing up for a free account, choosing a background and some characters, then typing in your script. This is converted, generally fairly successfully, to spoken words. The characters lip-sync to your script, you publish the video and you’re done. If you have a YouTube account, the site will upload the video for you. Video creation service provided on line, video hosting and viewing service provided on line. No problem.

Here it is; this blog’s readership is not the intended audience, so you probably won’t find it particularly amusing.

Could the video creation have been done using a standalone application rather than doing it on line? Absolutely. It may well have been quicker on my PC, but using this SaaS was fine. It performed well enough to be usable. Somebody taking my work isn’t an issue, as I always intended to show it publicly anyway. The worst that can happen is that my email address is abused, but it’s easy to make a throwaway email address.

I think that for this trivial recreational task, SaaS technology was absolutely appropriate. If the site had been unavailable or my Internet connection had been down, it wouldn’t have really mattered. If YouTube goes down for an hour and people can’t view my video, so what? If YouTube closes my account and makes all my videos unavailable, that would be more annoying but still not fatal.

So, full steam ahead for CAD on the Cloud, then? Er, no. It has yet to be shown that the Cloud is the appropriate technology for that particular use. I’m sure it will be, for some specialist niche requirements. But all of it? A complete fully-functional CAD application provided on a SaaS basis as an appropriate use of technology? Not any time soon. Maybe one day, but then again, maybe not. There will have to be real, demonstrated benefits that outweigh the concerns. The CAD Cloud vendors are going to have to go well beyond the “Wow! This is cool!” phase first, and start engaging the CAD community in serious discussion about the genuine concerns that customers have about the technology. Ignoring those concerns won’t make them go away.

Repost – how to get your picture next to your comment

This is a revisit of a post I made about three years ago, and repeated a year later. This has become more relevant recently because I changed the default avatars displayed next to comments to use random faces rather than random patterns. If you object to being portrayed as a grinning loon, read on.

You may have noticed that some people’s comments have an avatar picture next to them (no, not the film with the Roger Dean visuals), while others have a randomly assigned pattern. On this blog, the avatar picture is a gravatar (globally recognised avatar), and you can have one too. Once you set it up, you will find that it works in all sorts of places, not just this blog. Some other blogs may use other avatar standards, though.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Visit gravatar.com and pick a sign up link.
  2. Provide a valid email address; the same one you provide when adding comments to blogs. I have not received any spam as a result of doing this, which is no surprise because Gravatar is owned by Automattic, Inc., the highly reputable WordPress people.
  3. You’ll be sent a confirmation email; click on the link in that and follow the prompts to set your password and so on.
  4. Choose your gravatar image from your hard drive, the internet, a webcam or a previously uploaded image. You can point to any size photo and will be prompted to select a cropped square area to display.

That’s it, although you can manage your account to provide multiple email addresses and images if you wish. Wait 5 or 10 minutes, then check out this or other blogs and web locations where you have made comments in the past. Those blogs with layouts that support gravatars should now display the picture that you associated with the email address you supplied when you made your comment. If the image doesn’t show up, do a reload/refresh and/or clear your browser’s cache and try again.

Why don’t you trust Autodesk?

As I mentioned earlier, any company that wants to move its customers to the Cloud is going to need the trust of those customers. Three months ago, I started a poll to try to get some measure of how trustworthy you consider Autodesk to be, in terms of doing the right thing by its customers. The results of that poll look pretty awful for Autodesk. Right from the start, the distrusters have outnumbered the trusters by three to one, with the current results showing an overwhelming majority of respondents (77%) not trusting Autodesk.

Why? What has Autodesk done in the past, or is doing now, that leads people to this level of distrust? If you have voted in this poll, I’d like to know your reasons, so please add your comments whichever way you voted. If you think there’s an issue with the question wording and/or its simple Yes/No choice, feel free to say so.

There will be a number of people who have an inherent distrust of corporations, so as a control I’ve added a number of polls to try to see how much that influences the results. There are near-identical polls for a wide range of different corporations. There’s a poll for an on-line retailer and Cloud service provider (Amazon), one for a computer and gadget maker (Apple), one for another CAD company (Bricsys, makers of Bricscad), one for a maker of cars, motorbikes etc. (Honda), and one for a traditional retailer (Target). I’ll be interested to see how trustworthy you consider those corporations to be, and how they compare to Autodesk.

Dark times, dark sites

This site has gone dark for a day to support the movement against the proposed SOPA and PIPA bills. Rather than black out the whole site for a day like Wikipedia and thousands of other sites, I have decided to keep the blog somewhat usable.

SOPA is really, really scary stuff. If you’re an American citizen, I encourage you to visit the American Censorship site and do what you can to protect the Internet from the evils of Big Content.