Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cad on the technical desktop

In my latest round of what do you get in Linux I had to let life in the real world leak in a little. I have been for many years an Electrical draftsman and the software of choice in the profession is AutoCad. Now Autocad is only on the Microsoft Windows platform and because it is the industry standard, both Microsoft and Autodesk who makes AutoCad have a monopoly on the technical desktop. This is really apparent when you realize that most electrical cad work is 2D, wiring diagrams and schematics, and have basically have no need for things like parametric dimensioning and 3D capability. So in reality AutoCad is an extreme overkill. I think Autocad is used because of the file formats, DXF and DWG are handled so well. You could get into some 3D work involved with the physical layout and packaging of electrical parts, but for the most part, 2D is the ticket. There are some new Cad programs devised to better handle some electrical drawing tasks for a cheaper cost, but AutoCad pretty much retains a lock on the industry.
What of these other Cad programs? They handle DXF and DWG files with varying degrees of success. When you transfer drawings from one program to another, you can corrupt and or change data, which is not a good thing. So why isn't there a Linux version of AutoCad? There are two reasons. First Linux does not enjoy wide spread use in the tech industry. Then it seems that people who use Linux expect low cost or free software. Of course if a Linux version were the industry standard, you could get people to pay for it. With Linux there is always the question as to whether or not you can get a return on your investment of money, time and energy, which comes first the demand or the development? There is another reason that troubles me. It seems that people who use Linux applications do not develop or support industry user groups beyond the general purpose forums. This is a somewhat fuzzy view because people in the mechanical and architectural disciplines do share lots of information compared to the electrical which is mostly not mentioned.
The question comes up, can you really do Cad in Linux? Yes, by running a MS windows Cad application in a emulator like Wine or in a virtual machine under VirtualBox or VM. And there are a couple of Cad programs that run natively in Linux, namely Qcad and VariCad. Qcad is free and VariCad is not. There is also LinuxCad but I am not hearing good things about that one. Again, what troubles me about Qcad in particular is that everyone talks about it being easy to use but no one who uses it shares enough information about it to get a practical idea about how to use it. There are no Qcad users groups and the makers have left the users to figure it out. VariCad may suffer the same fate but I don't know. To be able to trade notes, symbol blocks, scripts and tips is what makes for an active support community. Right now I question as to if the software is even being used. There are a good number of Linux tools for printed circuit boards and electronic circuit design but simple drafting tools seems to have escaped the platform. The future of Cad on Linux seems iffy.

Now I will say a word to Linux users that may sting a little. Linux is "just" the operating system and means nothing without the applications which run on it. We users need to really around, support and promote the applications that make Linux a worthwhile platform. Perhaps the developers should consider putting among their application web pages, some promotional type pages and market their wares on other web sites. Then develop the user forms into user groups to share stuff that make use of the applications more useful. Linux could be the next great technical platform.

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