Cadalyst Readers Balk at Yearly AutoCAD Upgrades

29 Jun, 2006 By: Sara Ferris

Subscription pricing can offer savings, but annual releases lead to headaches for many users, our feedback shows

A year is not enough, at least when it comes to the timing of major software releases. That was the consensus of the many Cadalyst readers who wrote to respond to my May editorial, which discussed how Autodesk has structured its subscription program to be a clearly better deal than upgrading at will. Previously, the rule of thumb was to upgrade every other AutoCAD release, which meant an upgrade every three to four years. Given an annual software release cycle, most readers told us they prefer to make an actual upgrade every three releases. For those not on subscription, that means paying to upgrade just before their current version is retired by Autodesk.

(Incidentally, Autodesk recently announced that AutoCAD 2004 and related products will retire on March 15, 2007 -- the Ides of March.)

Respondents cited a long list of hassles involved in upgrading to a new version. (See the June Dialog Box to read the feedback we received.) The CAD manager has to evaluate the new version and develop a rollout plan. Users will need to be trained on new features. As one writer put it, his job is to use AutoCAD, not learn it. Upgrades for essential third-party programs might lag behind the release of the new AutoCAD product. And users will likely need additional training on those.

In a poll conducted this spring on, the majority of respondents indicated they believe they should have to upgrade their CAD software every 2-4 years. (Poll published originally in Cadalyst, May 2006.)

Cadalyst's Bug Watch column author Steve Johnson documented an unpleasant side effect of Autodesk's frequent release cycle in his May 2006 column. Frequent releases leave little time for beta testing, and development teams hard at work on the next major release don't have the flexibility to shift gears to fix bugs that crop up in a new one. The much-maligned CUI (customization user interface) introduced in AutoCAD 2005 is the poster child for this problem.

Autodesk does seem to be bucking the prevailing trend in its focus on yearly releases. Most other vendors plan major releases every 18 to 24 months. PTC even delayed commercial release of its latest version, Wildfire 3, reporting that it wants to ensure that the upgrade meets more stringent quality requirements.

Why, then, did Autodesk opt for an annual release cycle? I suspect part of the reason stems from its ever-expanding product portfolio. Having a single release date makes it easier to manage the development process, especially for those products that need to be interoperable. The yearly date is a compromise: Autodesk's newer products benefit from more frequent updates, but not so with mature products such as AutoCAD.

This may be reflected in the upgrade pricing: Using list prices, the AutoCAD subscription fee is 10% of the purchase price, but the Inventor Series subscription fee is almost 21%. The Revit Series subscription fee is 14.5%, while Civil 3D, where the subscription is mandatory, checks in at 13% of purchase price.

Whether a subscription is worth the price depends on how you look at the subscription. If you view it as a traditional transaction where you pay extra to get something extra, you may well be disappointed. Many companies are paying for upgrades they'll never implement. But if you look at it as prepayment for your next upgrade, it ends up looking pretty good.

Let's consider a hypothetical AutoCAD 2004 user -- Brutus -- a few days before March 15, 2007. To upgrade to AutoCAD 2007 (which will soon be superseded by 2008), he'll have to pay $1,795. If he dithers around and misses the deadline, he'll have to buy an entire new version for $3,995. Contrast this with Julius, who's been on subscription for the three years he's been using AutoCAD 2004. Julius has forked over $1,260. Even if Julius waits four years to get AutoCAD 2008, he'll still end up paying less by the time he makes the move than Brutus will pay for his nonsubscription upgrade to 2007. No wonder Brutus is mad.

This example uses Autodesk's list prices. Your numbers may vary, so you should consult your dealer before doing the math. Autodesk will also likely offer discounts to those using versions that are about to expire, which will also alter the equation. Still, you'd need around a 30% discount on the upgrade price to justify the nonsubscription approach.

About the Author: Sara Ferris

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