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Viewing VSD Files
After a number of readers asked about software that could display VSD files without needing Visio, I conducted a survey of a dozen file viewing programs to see which could handle VSD (Visio diagram) files. This special report covers the following topics:
I. Summary of Products Reviewed
II. Why Not?
III. Advantages to File Viewers
IV. Drawbacks to File Viewers
V. Visio's Free Drawing Viewer
I. Summary of Products Reviewed
Which third-party file viewers support VSD? The Executive Summary is, "None do." A better answer is that five products display the preview image only -- not the content of the VSD file itself. The preview image is included with each VSD file. The problem with the preview image is that, by default, it is in low resolution and shows just the first page of multi-page drawings. I contacted the following vendors:
* The following products display the VSD preview image:
CAD Systems Unlimited
Cimmetry Systems Panoramic
Cyco International AM-View
JASC Software QuickView Plus
Microsoft Visio QuickView
* The following do not support VSD at all:
ACS Software AutoEDMS
Bidcom (Cubus) ReviewIt
Kamel Software FastView
Of the vendors whose product supports VSD, only Cimmetry Systems plans to go beyond the preview image. Brian Strasser told me, "At this time, you are correct in that we only support the preview page. So the settings would have to be adjusted for each file. When we developed the support, this is all that was requested of us. An upcoming release of Panoramic will offer full support of Visio .vsd files, including multi-page support. We do not have a beta nor a scheduled release date yet. It is possible that we may only have something available early next year."
Sometimes, I found the response from a vendor a bit vague: "AM-View 3.11, our latest version, does indeed support VSD files. One thing that should be mentioned is that the OLE option on the VSD file must be selected in order to view the file with AM-View, but it is certainly supported." - Ian Pont, Cyco Europe. When I asked about the mysterious "OLE option," a new contact, Carolyn Hillmon from Cyco's support, asked for the name of my dealer. When I responded I was a software reviewer and not an end-user, I received no more communication from Cyco.
Visions.eZine v2#18 had asked readers
if they used any viewers. Ken Schiff responded, "QuickView
Plus 6.0 from JASC supports the preview mode of Visio v4, v5,
and 2000. Since they created this new version prior to Visio becoming
a Microsoft product, there's an outside chance that they will
eventually be able to view the complete file, if Microsoft is
more open about the file format."
Bob Gardiner responded: "Although not satisfactory (I use Visio, and have the program) -- I find the only file reader is the Quick View that comes with Windows. It sort of works, but in the absence of anything else it works for me trying to locate a specific file with a cryptic name. I have looked for years for such a thing."
II. Why Not?
Microsoft doesn't make the VSD file format available, nor do most file viewers handle VSD. The obvious question to ask vendors is, "Why not?" I first asked the question of Microsoft.
The question is embarrassing to Microsoft because of its involvement with an organization called the OpenDWG Alliance. The purpose of the Alliance is to reverse engineer the DWG file format, which is proprietary to Autodesk's AutoCAD software. Indeed, Visio Corp came up with the idea of the Alliance, providing its initial funding, staff, and reverse-engineered DWG read-write technology. Even so, Microsoft and a number of other members of the Alliance keep some or all of their file formats proprietary; some industry observers have pointed out the inherent hypocrisy.
I recall asking the question on the day that Visio Corp launched the OpenDWG Alliance. Why does Visio not document its VSD file format? Visio was expecting Autodesk to do that with DWG. The answer at the time was that "nobody had asked for it" -- an answer I didn't believe. Last week, I asked Microsoft:
1. Do you know of any third-party product that displays VSD files (not just the preview image)?
2. Would Microsoft make the VSD file format available, as it does with its Word DOC, etc formats?
The initial response was a bit vague: "We currently don't have one and at this point, we are not planning on having one for Visio 10. We provide publishing to Web formats for viewing" [which requires the extra step of translating the VSD to JPEG or VML]. So I pushed Microsoft's pr firm to obtain a more definitive answer:
"We have been looking into your questions about Visio's plans to release file formats to third-party ISVs to create viewers for Visio. To date, Visio has never released the file format to an ISV to create a viewer. "In terms of future plans, Visio is currently considering a number of alternatives (including releasing the file formats to ISVs), and trying to figure out the logistics of each. As you pointed out earlier, a viewer can be a critical tool, and Visio wants to ensure that their customers' needs will be met in the best possible way."
Eight products in the survey did not support VSD. A
typical answer emphasized the large number of other file formats
supported: "Thank you for your inquiry as to whether or not
Myriad views Visio VSD files. Unfortunately, it does not. However,
there are approximately 200 other formats in which Myriad allows
view and markup."
I asked the eight vendors, "Is there a specific reason for not supporting the VSD file format? After all, there are nearly four million copies of Visio out there!" Their answers were:
"If you paste a Visio file in a Word document, you could
probably view it through Bidcom Basic, but it may not be 100%
supported all of the time since that is a 'work around' and not
actual full support. Bidcom Project Management Service does support
Visio files, but you must have the application on your desktop.
When you try to open a Visio file, Visio is automatically launched
and you can view the document. More info at www.bidcom.com/about/about_main.html
"Is there a specific reason we don't support VSD? We were developed around the AEC [architecture, engineering, construction] industry and have dedicated most efforts on supporting design software packages, but are also adding more non-design software support. I have passed on your suggestions to the Product Manager and will reply to you when I get some more information about the status of full Visio support on our product roadmap. Our engineers are the people who figure out how to support these file types; we can't go out and license or buy the technology to support different file formats like older industries can. The recent acquisition of Cubus by Bidcom will help increase the file support catalog."
- Holly Stephenson, Bidcom
"I checked with our guys and posed your question to them.
They said, 'Visio has kept their files in proprietary format,
and we have not tired to reengineer their file format.'"
- Debbie Simpson, ACS Software
"At this point we have not received sufficient interest
from the marketplace to warrant developing Visio support in Spicer
products. Visio is capable of exporting files into a number of
formats that Spicer
products are capable of displaying such as dwg, dxf, dgn, cgm, jpeg, tiff, png, and many more. We are certainly open to examining Visio support if we can justify sufficient interest from the markets that we serve."
- Tony Prilesnik, Imagenation Product Manager
"No real reason. Not even demand from our existing users.
It is on our list of file formats that we do want to support."
- Robert Bruns, Allegria
I received no further response from Infograph/Myriad, Automate/Cadmanview, and Kamel/Fastview. And I received no response at all from Rasterx.
III. Advantages to File
It is convenient to have a single viewer product that handles (just about) all file formats -- including VSD -- and integrates into a Web browser. File viewers tend to display over 200 file formats, including raster files, many vector formats, Office documents, database files, and CAD files. File viewer products do much, much more than simply display the file. Depending on the product and price level, file viewers also perform:
If you are interested, be sure to check out the feature list at vendors' Web sites.
IV. Drawbacks to File Viewers
Since file viewer software can cost more than Visio 2000 Standard Edition, you might as well get the "real thing." (Most file viewers are US$99 to US$500, while Visio Standard has a street price of about US$170.) Then you don't need to worry whether the third-party product is: (1) up to date; and (2) accurate.
Up To Date. Each new release of Visio usually involves a change to the VSD file format. Often, programmers tweak the file format right up to final release; sometimes, the file format changes during the life of a release. File viewer programmers can take six to nine months to implement the revised format. Even if you don't purchase the new release of Visio, you'd still have to pay extra for the upgraded file viewer.
Accuracy. File viewers tend not to be 100% accurate in displaying non-raster files. With most file viewers handling over 200 file formats, it is hard to say whether the vendor would feel hard-pressed to correct VSD display errors.
V. Visio's Free Drawing
When Visio is installed, it adds a module to the Windows Quick View utility. In the Windows Explorer, or any file dialog box, you can right-click a filename. If Windows is able to display the file, then the Quick View item appears in the shortcut menu. Here's how:
Step 1. Right-click a VSD filenamne. The Drawing Viewer
also handles VST (template) files, but not VSS (stencil) files.
Step 2. Select Quick View. Notice that the Visio Drawing Viewer window opens, displaying the diagram.
Step 3. Using the toolbar buttons, you can zoom in and out, view pages (if enabled), and open the diagram in Visio. The scroll bars pan the diagram.
This figure shows the Visio Drawing Viewer displaying a file with preview quality set to 'draft'. You can greatly improve the quality of the preview image. Here's how:
Step 1. From Visio's menu bar, select File | Properties.
Step 2. Change Quality to Detailed.
Step 3. To view all pages in a multi-page diagram, change that setting too.
Step 4. Click OK, and save the drawing.
There are two drawbacks to changing from Draft to Detailed
preview quality. One drawback is that you need to do this for
every drawing. The other is that the detailed preview greatly
inflates the size of the VSD file. For example, the sample 'Block
Diagram.Vsd' file grows from 75KB to 457KB. If we had a true VSD
file viewer, we wouldn't have to deal with those drawbacks!