The AutoCAD For Mac Interview

The other day I did a group phone interview with a few Autodesk people on the recently announced AutoCAD for Mac. The group comprised of:

  1. Jim Quanci, Director of the Autodesk Developer Network
  2. Steve Preston of the Americas DevTech team
  3. Rob McGuire, Product Manager of AutoCAD for Mac
  4. Greg Remmert, Chief Software Architect of AutoCAD for Mac
  5. Noah Cole from the Platform PR team

The idea was to get more information about AutoCAD for Mac since there is still an embargo in place for people in the AutoCAD for Mac Beta program. I also wanted to know more about how AutoCAD for Mac came to being as well as what Autodesk’s plans for the on Mac platform were, to the extent that they were ready to disclose. This is how it went.

Deelip: I first heard about SledgeHammer at the DevDays event in Bangalore in 2008. I vaguely remember Jim Quanci talk about how and why Autodesk decided to re-architect the core AutoCAD engine to make it cross platform. Can you elaborate a little on that?

Autodesk: Over the years a lot of MFC and Windows specific code made its way into core AutoCAD. So in order to bring AutoCAD to the Mac we had to do this thing we call “The Big Split” in which we basically split up the code so that we could share the same core CAD engine between the two platforms. So the way this works is now we have two host applications, one written in MFC for the Windows side and the other is a Cocoa based application for the Mac side and they share a common CAD engine. This allows us to add the core geometric features to a common code base and yet offer a truly native experience on both platforms.

Deelip: So your are saying that you didn’t use any cross platform UI toolkit or something like that.

Autodesk: Correct. The application on the Mac side is written in Objective C and the Windows application uses MFC, C++ and some .NET. We went back and forth on which path to take. Based on customer feedback and user studies we decided to go with the native application on the Mac side. But having said that there are some parts that are cross platform. For example we have a couple of dialog boxes written in C++ in our licensing engine which use a cross platform component. Another one is the Material Browser. So there are a few components that are cross platform. But these are more like small utilities that all our products use. But the core AutoCAD for Mac is strictly a native application.

Deelip: How complete is AutoCAD for Mac? Does it have each and every command or feature of its Windows counterpart?

Autodesk: No, it doesn’t have every single command or feature of AutoCAD for Windows. Basically the philosophy was to study the Mac CAD market and what those customers wanted. We found that there were quite a bit of Architectural and Industrial Design customers. They tended to be more like the small to medium size businesses rather than the large corporations. So we tried to find the most widely used and popular features of AutoCAD that made sense to bring over to the Mac. We used a combination of actual customer research where went and watched certain customers use the program and the Customer Involvement Program which collects anonymous usage information. We had a kind of statistical record of what was used most often and which we used as a guiding light. Obviously there are other technological issues involved here. Things like VBA, COM API’s and stuff like that are not going to make it to the Mac. We were quite sensitive to making sure  that this was perceived as AutoCAD by the Beta community. So after every Beta release we used to ask the Beta community whether they considered this to be AutoCAD or not. And if not then why not? Then we used that feedback to guide the ongoing development.

Deelip: So when can we expect AutoCAD for Mac to reach the level of AutoCAD for Windows?

Autodesk: I think we will probably not comment on our future releases just yet. But I can say that we will support this product like we support all our other products. We realize that there is a lot inside the Windows version of AutoCAD that will be valuable to customers who are working on the Mac and we will be continuously working to add those features as we move forward.

Deelip: AutoCAD customers are used to a pretty high level of stability and performance. Have you done any benchmarks comparing AutoCAD on Windows and Mac? How do the numbers stack up?

Autodesk: We don’t actually publish these numbers. But we do run a series of internal benchmarks. We have an internal team dedicated to performance which Greg here is actually leading. To be honest it’s a funny science. These benchmarks do things like draw ten thousand lines as fast as possible, which no user ever actually does. Which is why the perceived performance from actual users is more important for us. I mean feedback from people using both versions of the product. Of course there are some simple differences between the Windows and Mac version of AutoCAD. Stuff like Direct3D and OpenGL differences which pose some interesting challenges for us.

Deelip: This question is regarding Project Butterfly. In an interview with Kean Walmsley the other day Tal Weiss mentioned that Autodesk was thinking of replacing the Flash ActionScript code with HTML5. This begs the question whether there was a good reason in acquiring VisualTau in the first place, since now it seems like none of its Flash code will be ever used in a released product?

Autodesk: With the acquisition of VisualTau we acquired both code and intellectual property and obviously a lot of knowledge. Israel has an really amazing community of people who are extremely skilled in developing web applications. So there’s a lot of things that we acquired there. You may see the code in Project Butterfly turn up in other things. But yes, its true that in order to do the iOS version we had to develop a new C++ kernel which also gives us the flexibility to work on other platforms. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t see the opportunity of working with Flash going forward. Another thing. There was a significant amount of presentation layer separation from the kernel component. So switching the UI layer was not necessarily a complete rewrite from the ground up. That enabled us to make the Flash to iOS port in a short amount of time. And by the way, we are just looking at HTML5. That may be the answer. But nobody really knows.

Deelip: I am trying to get a sense of the kind of increase in customer base that Autodesk expects to get by porting AutoCAD to the Mac. I mean, any Mac user who wanted to use AutoCAD was already using it on Windows running inside OS X using virtualization. So do you think there is going to be a significant increase in your AutoCAD customer base? If yes, how come?

Autodesk: On that front, yes there definitely are customers running AutoCAD on the Mac through Bootcamp and other virtualization techniques, which are all supported by Autodesk. But there is definitely a dissatisfaction rating that is higher than we would like. Things like performance suffers. You are running through multiple sets of drivers and that just bogs things down. If a Mac user wants all the functionality that is available in AutoCAD for Windows then that is still the supported and recommended method. Having said that there is also a healthy Mac CAD market today that we are really not a part of. So I think there’s definitely some potential market expansion there.

Deelip: So basically you are saying that there are Mac users who want to use AutoCAD on the Mac but are not doing so because they don’t like to run it using virtualization, although Autodesk supports the virtualization method. Do you happen to have an approximate number of how many such users exist? Again, I am interested in knowing how you see yourself growing your customer base with this Mac port.

Autodesk: We found in a lot of our research that customers make their platform choice before they make their CAD choice. That’s not necessarily true with a lot of Windows customers. But it is true with a lot of the Mac customers that we talked to. With that being said, if we don’t have an offering that is easy to use on the Mac OS platform then we are not in those markets at all. So there is definitely a potential to grow there. I would also say that most of the virtualized installations are an advanced work flow for most Mac users. People shy away from that and for a lot of people that’s really not a solution. We have to give them something that is a little bit easier than flying a second operating system, partitioning the hard drive, switching back and forth. People really don’t like that. Especially if their email is in one operating system and their CAD system is in another. They get very frustrated.

Deelip: Recently there was an independent survey sponsored by Autodesk which claimed that the ribbon in AutoCAD led to a 44% increase in productivity. Since AutoCAD for Mac does not have a ribbon, I am curious to know why Mac users would move from the Windows version of AutoCAD to using the Mac version if their productivity will be cut down by half.

Autodesk: Well the study looked at a lot of things. The ribbon in certain tasks performed in AutoCAD 2008 and 2001 can lead to a 44% increase in productivity. But that does not necessarily imply that the reverse would not be true. I mean if you don’t have a ribbon you are not going to increase your productivity. There is also another reason we did not add a ribbon. There is a very strong association of the ribbon to Microsoft and Windows. And for our customers who wanted the native interface they were not looking for a ribbon based experience. For those who still want the ribbon they can always run AutoCAD for Windows virtually on the Mac. However, if I’m a Windows user and I use Microsoft Office every day then I would be more productive using the ribbon in other applications as well. But if I’m using a Mac and you give me a ribbon, I’ve never seen a ribbon before. And that will slow me down.

Deelip: Yeah, but then I could turn your argument on its head and say that if I’m using AutoCAD 2008 and one fine day I upgrade to 2011 I’m going to get stuck up, right? So why should I upgrade? The point here is not the transition from menu to ribbon or vice versa. The point that the study was making was that after you are done getting used to the ribbon your productivity is increased by 44%.

Autodesk: Absolutely. But you also need to keep in mind that it within the environment of all the other applications that you are using.

Deelip: Earlier you mentioned that AutoCAD for Mac does not have all the functionality of AutoCAD for Windows. So why is it that AutoCAD for Mac is priced the same as AutoCAD for Windows? It looks like Autodesk is offering less for more.

Autodesk: The idea is that AutoCAD for Mac is AutoCAD. Even though I would say that the vast majority of all commands are still available, it is also about which customers that we are going after. It really does not make sense for us to implement features on the Mac platform that nobody’s going to use. So basically what the customers are asking for is that we are going to deliver. So like I mentioned before Mac users on the Architecture side shouldn’t notice much of a difference. And if they do then we will asses the demand for additional features and we will add them.

Deelip: I found it rather odd that Autodesk closed the AutoCAD for Mac beta program for new participants on the same day that you announced the product. Why is that?

Autodesk: We have over 5000 AutoCAD for Mac beta customers. We have a fairly decent sized team at Autodesk working on this but it not like 5000 people. We have a certain level of service that we like to maintain for these people. Honestly, the volume of feedback that we get is huge and if we have everyone working to analyze that feedback and reply to these people then we will really not be able to finish the job of actually getting the software out there. Moreover, if we have 10,000 people in the beta program, a lot of times they are just saying the same thing.

Deelip: So this is like a case when too much feedback can be a bad thing.

Autodesk: I would say redundant feedback that requires additional processing may not be the most efficient use of our time, as opposed to building features, fixing it and incorporating the feedback that we are getting.

Deelip: Now that Autodesk has ported AutoCAD to the Mac, are you looking at porting to Linux as well? I know this involves revealing future plans. But I’m asking if you would like to at least comment on this.

Autodesk: I think its too early to say anything on that. If you look at the reasons why we left the Mac in 94, it was primarily an economic decision as well as an engineering decision. We just didn’t that the business was there. The reason why we are now bringing AutoCAD back to the Mac is because we believe there is a business opportunity. So if we think that there is a worthwhile business opportunity for AutoCAD on other platforms then we’ll look at it. But we do not have plans to port AutoCAD to other platforms at this time.

Deelip: But are there plans to port AutoCAD verticals for the Mac?

Autodesk: As regards other products like the AutoCAD verticals, Revit, Inventor, 3ds Max, if we know that there is a lot of demand for those products and that there is a subset of the Mac community that would be really interested in native versions, then we will watch how this product does and determine our future plans. I think bringing AutoCAD back to the Mac is definitely a sign of commitment from Autodesk to the Mac platform, a sign of support and also that we believe that there is a business opportunity here. But we will be looking very closely how AutoCAD for Mac does and that will determine in part our decision of bringing other products to the Mac platform.

Deelip: Will Autodesk allow floating licenses for Windows and Mac running on the same machine? I mean if you have a license of AutoCAD for Windows running on a Mac do you get a free license of AutoCAD for Mac?

Autodesk: No. At the moment its considered a separate product. There will be a nominal fee to convert from Windows to Mac. And there will probably be a bunch of promotions to discount that even further. Its called a cross-grade. Actually the official term is zero-x upgrade. Basically it means its an upgrade without changing the release. However, a customer will have 60 days where he can have both running for transition and then we have a 30 day standard return policy.

Deelip: So you are saying that in two months a customer will need to make a decision whether he wants to stick with his Windows version or switch to the Mac version.

Autodesk: Well, when we ship the product, trials will be made available. So you have 30 days to kick the tires for free. If you like it you can pay the nominal upgrade fee, provided that you are on 2011. If you are on a lower version that you will need to pay the upgrade price.

Deelip: Recently there was a very interesting announcement from SolidWorks that they are about to release DraftSight for the Mac and that it would be free. I’m curious to know why you think a Mac user will be willing to pay $4000 for the native AutoCAD for Mac and let go of his Windows version when he can continue to use the Windows version and if he wants a native Mac experience, he could use the free DraftSight. So why would someone want to cross grade or do a zero-x upgrade?

Autodesk: There’s a couple of reasons for that. It’s up to the customer actually. I don’t think anyone knows exactly what’s going to happen. But I will say that DraftSight has been developed with cross platform utilities. So it has roughly the same look and feel and the feature set on both platforms, which in our opinion and in the opinion of a lot of our customers, is not really a native experience. There’s also been quite a few cheaper options, not necessarily free, of applications that claim to be DWG compliant for some time, even on Windows. People still buy AutoCAD because of the functionality, intellectual property investment, DWG trust and compatibility reasons. Those are the same reasons I think people will buy it on the Mac. So if you want the real thing and you trust the quality, the performance of AutoCAD and you want a true Mac experience, not some lowest common denominator cross platform technology, which frankly has been shown not to work long time, then you buy AutoCAD for Mac. And also, as you mentioned, we’ve been working on this since 2008 and we had no knowledge of DraftSight back then. So I guess we are also interested to see what’s going to happen. But we are confident that what we’ve done was done because our customers wanted and not because of other options that are out there.

Deelip: So would you consider DraftSight for Mac as the number one competitor for AutoCAD for Mac?

Autodesk: I think its fair to say that there are competitors on the Mac from a range of different vendors that include both new software and existing products that has been on the platform for a while and honestly even people running AutoCAD for Windows on the Mac using virtualization.

Deelip: You mentioned earlier that you wanted people to know that it was AutoCAD. So you went ahead and call it AutoCAD for Mac. So what exactly is this thing called AutoCAD WS? It is more like a viewer than anything else. You might be able to pull a few lines here and there but I’m curious to know why you decided to call it AutoCAD.

Autodesk: I think its probably not worth going into detail on this because the people who made that decision are not on this call. But if you look at the versions that have been brought to the iOS platform it is very common that there is a reduced level of functionality. That is true with AutoCAD WS as well, which is basically a subset of the functionality that exists in the full version. In this case, the subset is primarily focused on viewing, editing and collaboration. But at the end of the day, it is still part of the AutoCAD family.

Deelip: So does WS stand for anything?

Autodesk: No it does not stand for anything although there has been some creative suggestions from some quarters. It merely denotes that it is a web enabled version of AutoCAD.

Deelip: Is there anything else that you wish to tell me and my readers about AutoCAD for Mac?

Autodesk: I would say that the functionality stuff is definitely that we are sensitive to. We went to great lengths to make sure that it has ObjectARX compatibility, customization, DWG interop, the things that truly make AutoCAD AutoCAD. There’s definitely areas where we can expand in features but we are making sure that this is considered AutoCAD by our target customer base.