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.

Cloud benefits – constant updates

One promoted benefit Software as a Service is that you are always up to date. There are no local applications to install and maintain. You don’t need to go through expensive and disruptive annual updates and/or install service packs or hotfixes; all this is taken care of for you. The latest and greatest software is always automatically available to you, and because everybody is always using the same version, there will be no compatibility issues. You won’t need to worry about your OS being compatible with the latest release, either. Bugs, if not exactly a thing of the past, will be quickly taken care of without you even being aware of them.

This is something you all want, right? What could possibly be wrong with this picture?

Australian Fencing Championship 2011

I have been away in Sydney for a while, attending the Australian Fencing Championships. I fenced in five events with uneven success (I came 52nd out of 70 in the Open Foil, for example), but a few things made me happy. First, I was able to fence for Western Australia in the Team Foil event as captain of the WA ‘B’ team, which put up a decent performance in going down to a strong ACT ‘A’ team. Next, I came 6th in the Veteran Foil; down from last year’s 2nd, but quite respectable given the strength of the field.

The event I was really concentrating on, the one in which I most wanted to do well, was the Veteran Sabre. I fenced pretty well through the pools and direct elimination bouts and got through to the final. There, I faced an opponent who had beaten everybody else that day, and I had trouble maintaining the same level of performance. Who would come through to be crowned national champion for 2011? Watch the video (YouTube, 3:02 long) of the Veteran Men’s Sabre Final to find out:

I’m on the left. If a red light goes on, I’ve hit him. If he hits me, it’s a green light. If both lights go on, we’ve both hit each other within 120 milliseconds and the referee awards the hit based on right-of-way rules. Veteran direct elimination bouts are fought until one fencer scores ten hits. Link to results.

Anybody go to the AU Cloud Innovation Forum?

At this year’s Autodesk University, Autodesk is running a series of Innovation Forums. There was one scheduled for Tuesday November 29 at 10:00 (Las Vegas time) called The Promise of the Cloud – The Implications of Virtually Infinite Computing for Your Industry. That’s about 12 hours ago as I type this. I was hoping to attend this event, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

Did any of you attend that Forum? If so, what did you think? How did Autodesk address the concerns and promote the benefits? Did you feel any differently about CAD in the Cloud after attending it? Please add your own comments here, or if you wish to make more expansive observations, please contact me and I may publish a post dedicated to your review.

Cloud concerns – security again

It’s probably worth pointing out that if you you have no problem emailing your designs around the place without some form of protection or encryption, there’s little point in getting all worked up about Cloud security. Email isn’t remotely secure. FTP isn’t exactly watertight, either. If you’re still interested in Cloud security issues, this post includes some relevant links you might like to peruse.

First, here’s what Autodesk’s Scott Sheppard had to say about Project Photofly (now 123D Catch Beta) security last month: Project Photofly FAQ: What about the security of my data? This covers some of the same kind of stuff I’ve already discussed, but from an Autodesk point of view (albeit a pretty transparent and honest one, as you might expect from Scott). Here are some selected quotes:

In essence, we don’t want to accept liability when we don’t take money…

We intend to have a reasonably secure service, better than email, but less secure than a bank account.

We store your files on Amazon’s S3 service, and they maintain their own physical and data security policy that is considered robust.

Next, here are the 123D Terms of service, which raise many of the same alarm bells I mentioned before. Selected quotes:

We reserve the right to change all or any part of these Terms, or to change the Site, including by eliminating or discontinuing the Site (or any feature thereof) or any product, service, Content or other materials, and to charge and/or change any fees, prices, costs or charges on or for using the Site (or any feature thereof).

By uploading, posting, publishing, transmitting, displaying, distributing or otherwise making available Shared Content to us and/or any Users of or through the Site you automatically grant to us and our sub-licensees…the worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free, fully paid-up, irrevocable, non-exclusive, sublicensable (through multiple tiers) right and license to have access to, store, display, reproduce, use, disclose, transmit, view, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, publish, broadcast, perform and display (whether publicly or otherwise), distribute, re-distribute and exploit your Shared Content (in whole or in part) for any reason and/or purpose (whether commercial or non-commercial) by any and all means in any and all media, forms, formats, platforms and technologies now known or hereafter devised, invented, developed or improved.

Please note that with respect to Non-public Content, we will not authorize your Non-public Content to be made available to others on a public section of the Site, although we cannot guarantee complete security (e.g., of cloud servers).

Moving on to another Cloud security-related issue, something that Owen Wengerd raised on Twitter was the idea that:

…once data is on the cloud, it can never be deleted.

Deelip Menezes thought this whole idea somewhat loopy:

Actually I’m implying that it is ridiculous to even start thinking along those lines. 😉

However, I see Owen’s point. Once your data is on someone else’s server, you have no control over it. You have no idea where it lives, how often it is backed up, what happens to those backups, and so on. Let’s say you place some highly sensitive design data on the Cloud. It might be commercially sensitive, or about something that represents a possible terrorist target, or just something you don’t want certain parties to know about, ever. A week later, you delete the design data. Now, is it really gone? Any responsible Cloud infrastructure vendor must regularly take multiple backups and store them securely. So you now have multiple copies of your “deleted” data floating around, who knows where? What happens to old servers when they die? Where do backup hard drives, tapes, etc. go? If backups are stored off-site, how are your files going to be permanently removed from the media?

While there may be policies, procedures and ISO standards in place, we’re dealing with humans here. If one backup copy of your data ended up in a country where a rogue employee decided to better feed his family by selling off old hard drives, your nuclear power plant plans could end up not safely deleted at all, but instead delivered into the hands of some people you’d really prefer not to have it.

This may sound like paranoid nonsense, but risk from non-deleted data is real. There was a local case where a company was illegally siphoned of funds and went bust. The company’s old internal email servers were supposedly wiped and sold off. Somebody bought them, undeleted the data and was able to pass on incriminating emails to the police. While that ended up being a good thing in terms of natural justice and it’s not even a Cloud issue, it illustrates that making sure your stuff is properly deleted can be very important. This is related to something that Ralph Grabowski mentioned on Twitter; the “right to be forgotten”. Here is a Google search that includes various links that touch on some of the struggles related to this issue.

Finally, here’s something related to the possibility of the data being accessed illegally while it’s up. You put it up there, somebody copies it, you delete it, it’s not really gone and you are none the wiser. Is that something that only tin foil hat wearers need worry about? Have a read of this article before answering that one: Cloud Services Credentials Easily Stolen Via Google Code Search. Selected quotes:

The access codes and secret keys of thousands of public cloud services users can be easily found with a simple Google code search, a team of security researchers says.

Now the team is offering one word of advice to companies that are considering storing critical information on the public cloud: Don’t.

…an attacker who knows Google and some simple facts about cloud services authentication can easily find the access codes, passwords, and secret keys needed to unlock data stored in public cloud services environments such as Amazon’s EC3.

We found literally thousands of keys stored this way, any one of which could be used to take control of computers in the cloud, shut them down, or used to launch attacks on other computers on the same service.

Here’s a PDF of the presentation, if you’re interested.

How you feel about CAD in the Cloud

In February 2010, I ran a poll to gauge your feelings about CAD in the Cloud and left it going until October 2010. Just over a month ago, I asked the same question again and ran an identical poll. I have closed that second poll, and here are the comparative results (new poll at the top, old poll at the bottom):

Cad in the Cloud 2010 and 2011 Polls

I’m not pretending this is a scientific survey. There is bound to be some self-selection and other sources of bias, as there must be with anybody’s survey processes (very much including Autodesk’s CIP). Looking at the logs, I haven’t detected any obvious attempts to interfere with the poll, although there’s nothing I can do to stop people voting multiple times if they have access to multiple IPs (e.g. a work and home account). There are fewer votes in the newer poll only because I didn’t let it run nearly as long; the rate of voting actually doubled this year.

Caveats aside, what can we say about the way in which poll respondents’ views have changed in the last 18 months or so? The most obvious change is a marked reduction in the proportion of people who now feel Hopeful. There is a small increase in the number of voters who are now Excited or Frightened, but a big leap in those who are Concerned.

Combining the two positive choices (Excited and Hopeful) to come up with a simple “Cloud approval rating”, in 2010 39% of voters were positive about CAD in the Cloud. In 2011 that number is down to 29%. In other words, people voting Cloud-positive are about a quarter down on last year.

Most poll respondents here are Autodesk customers, so I think it’s fair to say that this result reflects poorly on the effectiveness of Autodesk’s Cloud marketing. After a year of providing an increasing selection of Cloud products free of charge, and a big Autodesk Cloud launch and publicity immediately before the poll, one would expect a lot more people to be sold on the Cloud, rather than the reverse. I don’t see that Autodesk has done anything atypically bad with its Cloud marketing (certainly nothing like Dassault’s SolidWorks train wreck), so what’s going on? Is CAD on the Cloud really an unsellable prospect?

Autodesk Cloud-based structural engineering software review

As I’ve already discussed, one of the areas where CAD on the Cloud shows potential is in handling specific tasks that require performing intensive calculations that are suitable for sharing among many processors. That sounds great in theory, and a lot of Cloud marketing (e.g. Virtually Infinite Computing) emphasises that point.

OK, that sounds promising, but how does it pan out in real life? One problem dissuading me from finding out is that Autodesk is being very restrictive with access to many of its Autodesk Cloud products (I’d probably throw a few sample render jobs into the Cloud and compare the performance, but I’m not the right kind of Subscription customer so I’m not allowed). Another problem is that I’m not qualified to review things like structural engineering software where the greatest computational potential appears to lie. Fortunately, Alex Bausk is qualified, so it was interesting to read his review of Autodesk’s Project Storm software.

It’s important to point out here that anything Autodesk with ‘Project’ in the name is not a finished product. It’s an Autodesk Labs thing, designed to attract feedback rather than use in production. I very much approve of this process. It’s one area in which I’m happy to endorse the way Autodesk is approaching the whole Cloud thing, and has several benefits over the flawed private Beta process that Autodesk uses for its mainstream products such as AutoCAD.

The downside for Autodesk when it comes to doing pre-release things publicly is that the criticism can be public, too. For example, selected from Alex’s review:

…the product is, for reasons unknown, available only in selected countries…

…utterly meaningless popups…

Options for analysis settings are, to put it short, appalling.

Project Storm is nothing more than a web envelope for our good old ARSA package. It is basically the same “Robot link” that reviteers have already had for quite a long time…

But the software’s practical use is extremely tiny, to the point of no use at all. You may surely forfeit all hope to do anything with it that would even remotely be relevant to all the “cloud analysis” hype in videos, intros and announcements.

I was unable to make any use of Storm with the sample models that come packed with Revit Structure and Robot Structural Analysis. To feed these default, Autodesk-made models to Storm, some really disruptive editing had to be made that involved deleting whole parts of the model, rendering it practically useless, only able to demonstrate how the process is meant to work.

Ouch! OK, so far it’s mainly just pointing out how half-baked the product is at this stage. Given that it’s a Project and not a finished product, that’s not so bad. It’s shipping products and features that are half-baked that I object to, and Autodesk has certainly produced a few of those. Anyway, here’s the bit I found particularly interesting:

Analysis speed, to a surprise, isn’t looking any good compared to desktop. The Storm’s cloud web analysis is extremely slow, likely because the server would yield a tiny fraction of its resources to your particular task.

In other words, the cloud speed and resource claim in case of Project Storm is no more than a standard cloud computing mantra.

…cloud calculations took around four minutes for this simple model, compared to fraction of a second using desktop…

What does this all mean? It could mean that Alex forgot to turn on the Ludicrous Speed toggle. It could mean that Autodesk is doing this experiment on the cheap and hasn’t paid for enough resources to make it work well. If so, that would be pretty short-sighted, and if Carl wants this Cloud thing to impress people he should sign off on a bunch more cash for Scott’s server farm budget. It could mean that this type of calculation is unsuited to parallel processing, in which case it’s probably not a great candidate for a Cloud product. Or it could mean that the calculation parts of this software haven’t been done properly yet, and everything will fly like the wind as soon as the developers get the hang of things.

Or maybe, just maybe, it means that the reality of Cloud computing isn’t quite as infinitely powerful as the hype makes out.

Cloud concerns – trust

Using any software involves some degree of trust in the vendor. Using the Cloud requires a much higher level of trust.

Autodesk boss Carl Bass is a maker of carefully crafted things, so I’ll use that as an analogy. Using standalone software requires the sort of trust that a maker has in a tool manufacturer. Will the tools work properly and last a long time? Or will they break, potentially damaging the materials or even the user?

Using SaaS requires that same kind of trust, plus others. Will the tool manufacturer keep making that tool? If not, will spare parts continue to be available? Will the manufacturer change the tool design so it doesn’t suit your hand any more, or doesn’t work as well on the materials you use? Beyond that, there are some aspects of the relationship that stretch this analogy somewhat. For example, a SaaS vendor resembles a manufacturer that won’t allow you to buy tools, only lease them. Except the manufacturer can change the lease terms or end it any time it likes, and then come into your workshop and take all your tools away. Oh, and this take-your-tools-away right also applies to the company that delivers the tools to your door.

Using Cloud storage requires yet further levels of trust. It’s not tool manufacturer trust, it’s bank safety deposit trust. Will your carefully crafted creations be kept safe? Or will they be stolen or damaged? If they are, will you be compensated? If you can’t afford to pay the bank fees or want to use another banker because the teller was rude to you, will the bank politely return your valuables to your safe keeping or transfer them to the new bank? Or will they end up in the dumpster at the back of the bank?

Trust is vital. I’m convinced that a CAD on the Cloud takeover will live or die based on trust, more than any other factor. Potential Cloud customers must be able to trust that the vendor is going to do the right thing by them. Without trust, any vendor that expects to win its customers over to the Cloud has absolutely no hope. None. Forget it. Pack up and go home now, and save us all a lot of bother.

With that in mind, a few days ago I added a poll that asks Do you trust Autodesk to do the right thing by its customers?. I deliberately didn’t mention it, just to see what would happen. The initial results are interesting, with only 25% trust so far. If you haven’t already voted, I encourage you to do so.

I also encourage you to share your thoughts on the subject by commenting here. Although you’re welcome to comment as you see fit, it would be good to hear specific reasons you have for whatever level of trust you may have. Do you trust Autodesk? If so, exactly what has Autodesk done to deserve that trust? If not, just what has Autodesk done to deserve your distrust? I’m concentrating on Autodesk because that’s mostly what this blog’s about, but if you’re not an Autodesk customer, feel free to add your thoughts about any CAD vendor you like.

Poll of evil

I have closed the Which of these is most evil? poll, which had been running from 20 February 2009. It attracted 2,351 voters, each of whom could distribute up to three votes among thirteen (yes, that number was deliberate) candidates. Here are the ranked results:

  1. Satan (36%, 846 Votes)
  2. Microsoft (31%, 721 Votes)
  3. Apple (26%, 614 Votes)
  4. RIAA/IFPI/MPAA (26%, 601 Votes)
  5. Miley Cyrus (23%, 546 Votes)
  6. Autodesk (23%, 536 Votes)
  7. Disney (16%, 382 Votes)
  8. Google (10%, 230 Votes)
  9. Dell (7%, 172 Votes)
  10. The Pirate Bay (6%, 147 Votes)
  11. Sony (6%, 140 Votes)
  12. Steve Johnson (4%, 89 Votes)
  13. Gaahl (3%, 82 Votes)

That top three is not going to shock anyone (except perhaps some fanbois), but are some surprises in the list. For example, more than a quarter of voters were aware enough of the evils of Big Content to be able to decipher the alphabet soup RIAA/IFPI/MPAA choice and select it. More than four times as many people think this litigious pack of demons is voteworthy than think the same about arch enemies The Pirate Bay. That’s not so shocking for those of us with our fingers on the pulse of popular opinion, but I was surprised to see so few people choose Big Content arch-villain Sony. Rootkit, anyone?

For Autodesk, this poll is something of a triumph, with less than a quarter of voters putting the company in the top three. Mind you, Autodesk was faced with some very stiff competition, being very narrowly edged out of fifth place by Miley Cyrus.

Only one in ten of you thought Google was worthy of selection. This is Google, a company that knows more about you than you do. Google, which passes out your information whenever it feels it might gain some strategic advantage from doing so, and really doesn’t care when it violates your privacy. Google, which insists on knowing my phone number before it lets me sign up for its Facebook-copy thing, because it obviously feels it doesn’t already have enough information about me. Google is apparently “do no evil” enough to attract far fewer votes than more sinister recipients such as, say, Disney.

Dell has been on my personal brown list for some years now, since repeatedly sending out fax spam to me and many other Australian businesses. It forced me to deal with its abysmal “customer service” [sic] Indian call centre in order to try to get it stopped. After making me wait for ridiculously long times while passing me round between various clueless, indecipherable people, a manager finally lied to me to get me off the phone. He assured me I would be taken off the list. The Dell fax spam continued until I finally gave up and threw the machine away; rather that than attempt to deal with Dell again.

Prior to this, I had no dealings with Dell and had just assumed it was a reasonably respectable company. It was only after this episode that I learned that Dell is utterly without ethics; my experience was perfectly normal. Indeed, victims of its shonkier practices (illegal bait-and-switch marketing, lying about stock and deliveries, repeatedly sending out “repaired” units that are totally non-functional, etc.) will probably think that I got off very lightly indeed. Dell has never seen a cent from me and never will. I’ve been very happy to pass on my feelings about the company to everyone who has ever asked for my hardware advice, as happens from time to time. 7% or not, Dell can go to Hell.

Finally, it’s official, I am more evil than Gaahl. Who? Gaahl is a Satanic death-grunt vocalist from black metal band Gorgoroth. He has performed in corpse paint on a stage decorated with sheep’s heads on spikes, and blood-splattered naked women hung up on crosses. Gaahl has been convicted of viscious violent assault multiple times, including one occasion where he was alleged to have threatened to drink his victim’s blood. I’m sure my metal friends will be very impressed by me being considered more evil than that. \m/