FAQ 14 – Upgrading CAD software – Why and when?

20 October, 2023

(last updated 20 October 2023)

Today we’re talking about an issue which has come up quite frequently in the past couple years– upgrading CAD software. Specifically, why should we, and when and how is the best way to do it?

What should customers do when software goes obsolete?

Jewellery CAD has been its own distinct sub-industry of product design CAD for over two decades now. This means it has been around long enough for several CAD tools to have reached maturity, but it has also seen many programs and companies die out or be bought out.

Back in 2014, Autodesk (the makers of AutoCAD) purchased DelCAM (the makers of ArtCAM Jewelsmith). As part of their overarching corporate strategy, Autodesk soon switched the software from perpetual licenses to a monthly subscription model much like Adobe. And for some undisclosed reason, in 2018 the developers who had originally made ArtCAM left the company and struck out on their own. Autodesk kept the name ArtCAM Jewelsmith (even though the software was discontinued in 2019), but the developers were allowed to make their own software all over again so long as it wasn’t called ArtCAM. And thus in 2018 CarveCo was born.

We had three types of customers left from this corporate reshuffling:

  1. The customers who had switched to subscription licenses with Autodesk for ArtCAM, who found their software discontinued and non-functional at the end of their subscription.
  2. The customers who refused to switch to subscription licenses, and who still have functioning (albeit obsolete) ArtCAM software to this day.
  3. The customers who paid all over again for a new CarveCo license and who have up to date ArtCAM software in everything but name.

So (besides learning the lesson that subscription models are risky), what lesson can we learn from this? Is it better to upgrade obsolete software or stay with it?

 

The cost of upgrading

While its commonplace for major software upgrades in perpetually licensed software (ie non-subscription based software) to come at an additional cost, business restarts or handovers can make these fees closer to buying the software all over again.

Another example would be the relatively short-lived Panther plug-in, a market replacement for RhinoGold, TechGems, or many other similar but discontinued lower-cost jewellery plug-ins intended to compete against Matrix or MatrixGold. Started in 2019 just before the pandemic, it’s anyone’s guess as to why the company disappeared but one could guess it was simply a victim of bad timing. Nevertheless in 2022 it is now being released under a new name CrossGems, featuring all of the same features, and looking to add more.

Unfortunately, with the change of ownership, Panther owners who wish to take advantage of the newest version of their software will find themselves in a position where they much purchase a new program (albeit at a discount).

A similar thing happened with the transition between Matrix and MatrixGold in 2019. When Gemvision purchased RhinoGold, they decided to merge both programs together to get the best of both worlds. While the new software became much more powerful for parametric modelling, the fully recoded upgrade came with a significant fee, not to mention some retraining. (EDIT: Gemvision has been recently discounting that Matrix transition fee to encourage more users to update).

The question then becomes is it worth paying all that money to “buy software all over again”? Depending on how you frame the question, many people’s first kneejerk reaction would likely be to say no and walk away on principle.

While I can understand why some people might feel that way, after some thought on the question I believe I can make a case for why it is (usually) worthwhile upgrading.

There are two arguments to consider here:

 

Automobiles don’t run forever

If you grew up with a family car and your father wasn’t a skilled mechanic, you will likely recall that even the most well-made car didn’t run forever. Either it became too worn out to fix or the features in the car proved no longer adequate for the needs of the family. Eventually, if the family still wanted to use a car, they had to come up with a solution to re-purchase their family automobile.

While this may seem an odd metaphor to apply to software, consider that Matrix 9 was written for Windows XP and coded in Visual Basic. Support for Windows XP ended in April 2014. We’re now two Windows OS’ and nearly 10 years beyond that. Given how frequently programming code kernels are updated for security and efficiency reasons, it’s a wonder the software still works at all on more recent Windows OS’.

In short, while it is theoretically possible to curate an early 2010’s PC tower isolated from the internet and have it run vintage software forever, most people aren’t going to be skilled enough at hardware maintenance to do such a thing, let alone CAD/CAM designers whose primary day job has little to do with fixing computer hardware. So time has an effect on both computer hardware and software whether we want to admit it or not.

 

Software doesn’t get developed for free

Of the two arguments, for some reason this is the one many people least want to hear. Perhaps we just naturally expect software to cost less than our PC (a counterintuitive relic from the 1990s computer and video game markets), or perhaps we get into the mindset that the software works well enough already, and don’t see the need for improving it.

Perhaps the best way to look at this is to look at the development of software over a longer term than just a single update. Individual updates are rarely large (unless there were a lot of bugs to fix), but over time the updates add up to make the software look and behave very differently.
Consider the difference between 3Design versions 8, 9, and 10:

 

Similarly, the Rhino version 7 update from version 6 introduced an entirely new array of Subdivisional modelling tools called Rhino SubD, and completely replaced the rendering engine.

Even mature software like Adobe Photoshop with its continual subscription-funded development has been building up changes to where over three years the workflow has changed significantly, and it is only set to change more dramatically with their AI enhanced tools currently in beta testing.

 

Software subscription models versus perpetual licenses

It’s no secret that many people don’t like change, especially if they’ve invested dozens of hours into learning to use a particular program. This may explain why almost every historical example of changes to licensing for software has been met with resistance stemming from nothing more than fear of change.

I’ve felt it myself. Many software companies have switched from dongles (hardware keys) to online licensing which requires continuous internet connection. This transition has been awkward at times as it changes where and how you work with the software.

Subscription-based licensing is even more problematic. The idea that the software is now steadily subsidised for continual development and long-term improvements appeals to some companies, but many users don’t like to be reminded every month that their software costs money. I’ve even seen some call subscription licenses rent-seeking. And in some cases, it has even dissuaded people from making upgrades entirely. Sadly if their software is still in demand, this only leads to more and more prolific use of older or pirated versions of the software, and subsequently aggressive anti-piracy escalations. As one extreme example of this, when Adobe first launched their Creative Cloud in 2013 the sheer number of people who refused to upgrade eventually led to their making the notoriously ill-advised PR move of deauthorising all previous versions of Adobe software.

While I’m not a fan of subscription-based licensing myself, if the software is useful enough (and I cannot find a better alternative) I will use it. Perhaps this is why Adobe has still managed to weather its own PR mistakes.

The best advice I’d been given for upgrading software

So if we should be upgrading when we can, when is the best time to upgrade?

While I do think you should stay up to date with your software if and where possible, that doesn’t mean you should just automatically upgrade whenever a new paid version of the software comes out. Like any other investment in your business, you should do it when it makes sense for you and your business.

That is to say, if you’re only using the software occasionally, and you’re not making money out of its use, then it’s harder to justify the upgrade unless you want it as an expensive toy.

In my case, I follow the advice of my former managers in the past– for software you use regularly for profit, work the price of upgrading into your monthly business expenses, and then purchase the new upgrade at a point where I’m ready to dedicate a day to checking the differences in the new version.

While I don’t recommend as exacting a strategy as this for everyone, there is value in planning when you want to upgrade.

Conclusion

It seems to me the healthiest way of handling the purchasing or upgrading of your software is to treat it like investing in tools for your business. Just like with any other professional tool, the value of the upgrades should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Similarly, not investing in the latest most efficient tools can easily prove to be a false economy in terms of technical problems, compatibility issues, or other types of wasted productivity.

WRITTEN BY

Jack Meyer

Bespoke jewellery designer, and specialist in jewellery CAD/CAM and emergent technologies that affect jewellery.

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