What about this Wildfire Thing?

What About This Wildfire Thing??
An opinion by Eldon Goates, August 2002

Mechanical Design If you've kept up at all the happenings at PTC (makers of Pro/Engineer), then you're well aware of the next coming adventure they call Wildfire.
What is it?
Wildfire is the development code name of the next release of Pro/E.  It's unsure at this point whether it will retain the "Wildfire" name into production, but Wild Fire aptly describes the total make-over of the product.  (Hopefully we won't look back at it as a devastating force the destroyed everything in it's path.)  Either way, it will certainly change the landscape with respect to Pro/Engineer.

I was invited this summer along with several others to PTC's headquarters to have a look at the current development build and give some feedback.  While there, we were shown the new products and given a fairly extensive background on how things have evolved.  I don't know much about those that used to drive development, but I can say that the current drivers portray a much different and refreshing attitude toward the product and toward customer input.  It was obvious they have really thought through a lot of what's happening.

So what do I think?
First, you won't recognize it.
Second, it's a mixed bag.  Assuming they can find a good pesticide, the new and/or casual user will love it, the rest of us will hate it . . . at first.

Here is a more detailed version of my opinion divided into 3 categories:  The Good, The Bad, and The Really Ugly.  Or you can skip to the Summary.


Update May 2003:
  After really using Wildfire we have a somewhat different opinion.  Read A New Outlook on Wildfire.

First, The Good:
There is so much to be excited about with Wildfire.  To begin, there are some great feature additions and some great re-thinking of existing features.  Most of these are well documented in the PTC hype, so I won't go into detail, but here are some highlights:
  1. One of the first things they pointed out was they have heard from us (customers) that we don't care so much what it looks like, we just want it to work!  It was music to my ears!  And I hope they mean it.  (But it begs the question:  Why such an extensive make-over??)
  2. The best thing, (to me) is the functional feature grouping.  For example, everything that can be extruded is now put together so, if you make and extruded protrusion and decide it should be a cut or a surface or a thin instead, you can change it with a few picks.  This part of Wildfire appears (at first glance) to have been very well thought through, and I love the concept.
  3. PTC has taken the User Interface (UI) to an entirely new level.  There are things I personally didn't like, but when questioned, there were good reasons.  Halaluya!  They actually thought about it before doing it!  I saw, fewer random dialog boxes, and much more consistency.  The new piece of UI called the "dashboard" is a pretty good implementation to support the new functional grouping discussed above.  The UI really has come a long way.
  4. Another Yippee! on the UI is the consistent overall behavior.  PTC has put a lot of thought and documentation into things like icons, arrows, appearances, dialog boxes, etc..  It's not perfect, but it's noticeably better.
  5. A new feature worth mentioning is the Collaboration tool.  (You can read the details on the PTC web site and in Pro/E Magazine.)  The essence is that you can have multiple people in different areas of the world all looking at the same screen, at the same model and working on it together.  They demonstrated it, and it's exciting.  (I've seen the technology in other venues, but the concept of having it integral with Pro/E is really exciting!)
  6. Along with basic Pro/E, they put a lot of effort into other areas of the software.  Manufacturing for instance was one presentation I found really interesting.  The new UI and paradigms don't extend to these other modules (yet), but it was good to see some long needed improvements across the board.
  7. There are now many ways to manipulate a view of the model -- spin around an edge, spin at a vertex, zoom on a point, and more.  These are wonderful improvements.
  8. There are more great features to look forward to, but I won't go into detail here.  They are well documented in other areas like on the PTC web site.
The Bad:
This may be the skeptical side coming out, but there are a few notable things that seemed . . . well, . . . a little out of place, perhaps even contrary to the stated objectives.
  1. Only time will tell, but it appears to me that this is too big a change for a single release.  Why do I say that?  Past history.  Even though the planners are taking a new look, I didn't see evidence that the coders are writing fewer bugs.  The development build we used was still early in terms of readiness, and there is a monumental task in front of the QA department  (Yes, they have one -- and some top notch people too), but it's a huge job.  I wish them luck!

    A note of Encouragement:  Originally, Wildfire was a spring 2002 release, but it's been postponed more than once for quality.  PTC says they won't release until it's "ready" -- but what does that mean?  I hope it means we'll get a stable release first time, but you can feel the pressure  . . .  We'll see who wins  . . .  I'm rooting for the Orkin guys!

  2. What's with all the "whoopty-do" stuff?  Things like "Edit values in the middle of the screen" (like in sketcher) have little value, yet contribute disproportionally to the bugs.  Even after 2 years, PTC hasn't made them work right in just a small part of 2001, so why propagate it further?  Unfortunately, Wildfire has more of these "who cares whoopty-do" things, and I fear the worst because of them.  The worst part is it flies in the face of #1 in the section of The Good above.
  3. I was disappointed with the "Copy" feeling that prevailed.  It seems like each new release of Solid Works looks more like Pro/E, and each new version of Pro/E looks more like Solid Works.  Has PTC voluntarily relinquished it's role as CAD leader by choosing to follow?  This isn't universally true, but some of it tasted a lot like Vanilla.
  4. The UI.  As mentioned above, there are some great improvements in User Interface, but one I don't understand is copying of MickySoft UI mistakes.  Why copy things that don't apply?  The MickySoft interface may work for word processing, but come on, Pro/E isn't that simple and the expected results not so straight forward.  Unfortunately, some of the paradigms just don't fit.  It's evident that PTC also recognized this fact in creating the new "dashboard" element -- a demonstration of what can be accomplished by thinking outside the windows.  There has to be a better way.
  5. With Wildfire, PTC continues to bury unique functionality.  Perhaps they can't categorize it, or perhaps they don't think people use it, but it's silly to bury product differentiating functionality that helped make them great.  Why hide "Anatomical Features" that do things that can't be done in other ways (or by other CAD systems)?  It looks like they're trying to be more like their lower-end competitors.
The REALLY Ugly:
A few things in Wildfire stick out as just poor.  These are The REALLY Ugly.
  1. When I first tried Wildfire, I noticed the spin is different.  Yes, they changed buttons for consistency (which is neither here nor there) but they also changed the character of spin with respect to mouse movement -- and it lost one degree of freedom.  Duh.  It's a feature that's easily learned, almost universally accepted and generally loved.  Why change the things that work so well?  (Maybe to copy someone?)  Nearly all of us (visitors) put up a fuss about it, so we'll see if PTC is customer driven.  If the spin is new when Wildfire is released, you will know for certain that the desire for customer input is lip service only.  It'll be the first thing I try.
  2. The #1 worst part of Wildfire (from my perspective) is that it (again) further alienates those that use it most.  Working toward acceptance by new and casual users is a great goal, but should not be done at the expense of the fundamental user base.  There has to be a better compromise.  The ability to individually streamline and optimize the working environment has been one of the greatest assets of Pro/Engineer.  Unfortunately, it's not a PTC priority so capability is eroded (drastically this time) with each new release, and it makes me very angry!  For those that optimize their environment for efficiency, Wildfire will be a huge hit to productivity -- Regardless of what PTC says.

    More info?  -- Efficiency and the Mouse.

  3. There are a several other "DUH!" items in Wildfire that just make me shake my head.  Mostly little things, but it's pretty obvious not everything was thought through.
. . . things like not having the layer icon as a tab for the layer view window.  All the other things that can be viewed there have a tab, why not layers?
. . . things like not being able to access layers and the model tree simultaneously -- to put items on layers by picking from the model tree rather than from the model.  That isn't a big deal to the PTC guys as they haven't created a 50+ feature model in years.  (Think that's critical?  It's true.  I've asked dozens of PTC employees and they all admit they haven't done much modeling in years!)
. . . and many more.
In Summary . . .
. . . We'll take the good with the bad.  Now we have a company that's trying to listen to the customer, but seems to be directed by an intellectual introversion -- reflected in the Solid Works copying, the MickySoft UI (at the expense of usability), and burying of unique functionality.  We have a company that is trying to drive Quality, but is making so many dramatic changes that the Pest Control Swat Team is overwhelmed.  We have a company trying to make a more consistent product for better acceptance, but see a continued alienation of its existing users.  -- What to do.?.  If the bug killers win, the rest will matter less, and we'll all be happy.

TIP  - When it comes out, Try It!  But be careful in setting your expectations -- especially in listening to all the Wildfire propaganda.  Hopefully then you'll be pleasantly surprised.


A note of Thanks:  The invitation to visit PTC and look at their next product was a great opportunity.  I want to thank everyone involved for the information and hospitality.

A note of Apology:  I know it's much easier to critique than to create, to criticize than to congratulate.  I applaud the effort that has gone into creating Wildfire and I'm excited about the improvements (though I have left the promotion and accolades to others that have already written them).  I am very happy to see the attitude change in PTC management and happy that the company is seeking customer feedback.  I am sorry if any of the above editorial is interpreted as condemning or damning -- that is not the intent.  It is just my opinion.  Certainly any of us would have done it differently -- but we didn't -- and those that have did their best.  I hope that the above comments will be taken as constructive criticism to improve the product as it continues to evolve.

Efficiency and the Mouse

As an input tool, the mouse is a wonderfully versatile and flexible devise, but reliance on it (as in many current software products) creates inefficiency.  The mouse requires position (with both large and small muscle groups), then, feedback (eye-hand coordination instead of feel), then, in sequence, selection (one of only 3 possibilities) -- making it ergonomically inefficient.  With Wildfire, PTC relies even more heavily on the mouse -- thereby reducing the ability to optimize for speed.

For speed, you need the right tool at the right time.  Other input devises, like the keyboard, are more efficient for certain tasks.  Unfortunately, the gospel of Graphical User Interface has swung too far toward carpoltunnel (sp) and has forgotten the virtues and efficiencies of a broad tool chest.  I like the mouse, but I hate the serial sequence of move - click, move - click, again and again, move - click.  Progress is slow compared to trained fingers each with small muscle movements that occur with just a thought -- (visual feedback isn't required, and my arm and shoulder don't get sore).  Why not skip the repeated sequential steps?  Why not skip the eye-hand feedback and go straight to the meat?

Those that mouse through the menus may think I'm full of crap, but those who have optimized their environment don't use the menus much anyway, so having to mouse to each command (even if they're streamlined) will be a productivity degradation.  A perfect example is the current sketcher.  I like some of the improvements, but even after 2 years, I'm still slower with it.  There has to be a balance somewhere -- and PTC has not yet found it.

PTC, If you're listening and if you want customer feedback, this is where you should focus your future efforts.  Find ways to individually customize and optimize functionality to reduce the reliance on the mouse and to increase efficiency -- both in ergonomically and in spending less time focusing on the HOW and more time on the WHAT (the reason we use the software in the first place).