Today I received a friendly email from my local SolidWorks VAR, ending with a gentle nudge: “****THERE IS NO GRACE PERIOD FOR DECEMBER RENEWALS, ANY DECEMBER RENEWAL RECEIVED AFTER DECEMBER 31ST WILL AUTOMATICALLY INCUR A REINSTALLATION FEE – NO EXCEPTIONS.” Ahhh, the sweet taste of extortion in the morning. SolidWorks 2014 is upon us, friends, as is that big annual “subscription” bill–one of the largest business purchases I make in the course of the year. I’m fed up. I’m angry. And I’m going to pay up. (Buries face in shame.)

Tools are good, and good tools are worth money.

I use whatever combination of tools offers me the best cost-benefit ratio for whatever task I’m trying to achieve. In my various corporate jobs I’ve used CATIA, UGNX, Rhino, and Alias for design work, and each has its own advantages. For the last five years or so I’ve found that a combination of SolidWorks and MODO–along with various plugins, scripts, and sidecar tools–has provided the best price:utility ratio for my specific 3D design needs.

I do not use pirated software. Ever. I believe in paying fair-and-square for the tools that make my work possible. CAD tools have always cost the arms, legs, and first born children of those who benefit from their power. That’s just how the industry works, and in many ways it’s justified: the more efficiency a tool provides, the more it’s worth to users, and it is important that CAD companies have a healthy financial incentive for making great products.

SolidWorks offers some pretty great benefits for my specific situation: most of my customers use SolidWorks, most of my peers use SolidWorks, it does most of what I need it to do (most of the time), and the SolidWorks UI is still (very subjectively) the most easy-to-learn and enjoyable-to-use in the MCAD market. (Play nice in the comments, kids. No flame wars please.)

Subscription to what?

But wait, to what exactly am I subscribing? I emailed my VAR with this very question. The response:

The subscription service entitles you to version upgrades, service packs, online customer portal access to SolidWorks, as well as the technical support. Attached lists all the benefits for this service.

Attached was a PDF with a long-winded version of what the VAR had written, plus a nice stock photo. Lets go through those features one by one:

  • “Version Upgrades”
    Apologies if this is excessively fastidious, but one upgrade per year is not plural. It would be more correct to say that an annual subscription entitles you to “a version upgrade” given that there is only one per year.
  • Service Packs
    It seems strange to charge a subscription fee for bug fixes to a product that has already been purchased. Everyone charges for version upgrades, of course, but service packs? Of course, SolidWorks might argue, what you really pay for is the version upgrade, and the service packs are simply included in that price. Sounds fair enough, but it’s misleading: if I let my subscription lapse, I am still barred from downloading service packs with bug fixes for the version(s) for which I’ve already paid.
  • online portal access
    This one puzzles me. A forum consists almost entirely of user-generated content, which is presumably why I have yet to encounter any other software company who charges for access to its own user forums. Further, forums aren’t just a support community, they are a sales and marketing tool–the outward face of the user community–so is curious that SolidWorks would want to keep this community behind lock and key. If I were a prospective SolidWorks customer, I would be quite wary of a company that hides its user community behind a pay-wall.
  • technical support
    I’ve never used this, so I can’t really comment except to say that I’ve apparently I’ve been paying for support that I’ve never used. I would expect quite a lot of support for $1300–probably at least a full eight hour day from a highly trained professional. Are most SolidWorks users benefiting from that level of support? I have no evidence (feel free to enlighten me in the comments), but I doubt it. More likely the support offered is used by a handful of customers, while the rest of us blithely go on paying for it.


The “subscription” fee for SolidWorks Basic is, for me, $1372, nearly triple what I pay for a year of access to the entire Adobe Creative Suite (of which I regularly use Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, AfterEffects, Premiere, and Audition). Put another way, for the price of one seat of SolidWorks, the entire EvD Media team can use the entire suite of Adobe creative tools for raster imaging, vector imaging, page layout, web design, video editing, audio production, and 2D/3D motion graphics. Further, access to Adobe’s forums, user manuals, and basic training are, of course, free and open to the world (and therefor not included in the subscription price). Technical support is not bundled–which I’ve never needed, and never missed.

As another industry benchmark, consider Fusion 360: a full-featured cloud-based CAD system with impressively capable direct modeling tools, including Autodesk’s first attempt at rolling T-Splines into a cohesive CAD product. As a low-end tool with higher ambitions, it is an auspicious start considering that it costs a mere $25 per month ($300 annually). Clearly a mature professional ecosystem like SolidWorks is worth far more than the pittance charged for a fledgling product like Fusion 360, but it does give one pause to wonder if, in general use for the average CAD user, SolidWorks could possibly be worth sixteen times as much in the first year, and nearly five times as much every year thereafter. Maybe so. But how long can that last?

Worth it?

SolidWorks 2014 sports lots of great new features, the vast majority of which are relatively small. For my work, the main improvements are:

  1. conic fillet tool (woot)
  2. replace sketch entity (about effing time)
  3. a NURBS spline c1975 (thank you, Ken Versprille)
  4. much quicker assembly mates (the way that always should have been)

The big one is the conic fillets. And they are sweet. Like bathing-in-champagne-blowing-bubbles-through-a-golden-straw-and-smoking-ground-up-hundred-dollar-bills bliss. But worth $1372?

Well, sadly, what alternative do I have? If I don’t upgrade, I’ll fall behind as my peers adopt non-backward-compatible future versions of SolidWorks (oh yeah, forgot to mention that little gem).

The thing about extortion is that it works.

For all the perfectly-legitimate complaints against Adobe, I’ve never been extorted by them. They don’t send scolding emails tersely reminding me in bold text of the penalty fees I will incur if I choose not to renew by a certain date. They’ve never sent me “warning” emails at all, in fact. Adobe’s general attitude recognizes that they, the vendor, are selling a product to me, a customer, not merely collecting dues from indebted minions. To be quite honest, it was the tone of the warning that was the impetus for this article in the first place. It’s one thing to receive excessively aggressive marketing emails from time-to-time (I’m looking you dead in the eyes, SpaceClaim), but a company who uses threats as a way of pushing its products is not one with whom I care to do business.

In the end, of course, I will pay up. Not because of a fillet tool, a style spline, or any of the other UI enhancements in SolidWorks 2014, and I will certainly not pay for bug-fixes-to-products-I’ve-already-paid-for, a forum-that-should-be-free or VAR-support-I-don’t-use. No, I will upgrade for one reason and one reason only: because my customers and co-workers require it.

But you just wait, SolidWorks. I won’t be your slave forever! The ground is rumbling with better, cheaper alternatives, and I plan to join them… just as soon as you let go of my short hairs. Please?


Adam O'Hern is an industrial designer, designing products ranging from laptops to power tools, classroom toys to bathroom fixtures, and pro audio gear to guitar tuners. In 2008 he founded, and in 2010 co-founded EvD Media with Josh Mings of, and the two collaborate on the podcast.