Made in Boston

Is Dassault Turning SolidWorks into Apple?

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And not in a good way. Apple’s mission has always been to control every aspect of its products, including the hardware, software, and sales of every Apple device. This has served them well in some areas, and poorly in others.  We won’t get into that now.  What I find more interesting is the growing similarity between SolidWorks and Apple, even since Dassault Systemes took over the company (or at least since they started exerting more of their influence, in 2008 or so). 

Let’s start with SolidWorks’ systematic dismantling of all open-ended collaboration tools in the past few years, except for its new, SolidWorks-only n!Fuze “product”.  Just a few years ago, we were able to collaborate and share with anyone, no matter what platform they might be on. We could use 3DInstantWebsite to create an html page of our models, and send them to anyone who had an Internet browser. We could also wrap up an eDrawings model in a neat little exe file, and send it to someone, who wouldn’t have to install anything.  

First they came for 3DInstatWebsite, but I said nothing because I did not use 3DInstantWebsite…

The change started with 3DVia Studio. You could upload your models directly from within SolidWorks to a cloud-based web viewer. Then you could share your models with anyone, all they’d have to do was log on, install a little plugin, and view it.  No big deal, right? Wrong. The overwhelming majority of lay-people I tried to share with using 3DVia refused to allow it to install a plugin. All of a sudden, collaboration got a lot harder.

For a brief shining moment, those in the know thought Project Panama – a web-based project management tool – would start us in the right direction. But Dassault condemned it to endless delays while they evaluated how it would “fit with their product line.”

Now, not only does Dassault only wants us to be able to share via n!Fuze, they want us to pay for the privilege.  $70 per month (at minimum) for each the creator and the viewer, even if they’re only using the web portal. I’m not saying n!fuze is the only remaining way to collaborate, but SolidWorks has made all the other options less appealing in the last few years.  So now, if you want to collaborate semi-efficiently, you’ll have to use Dassault-sanctioned programs on Dassault-owned servers. 

How does this compare with Apple? iTunes is Apple’s social platform, iCloud is their collaboration platform, or at least could have been.  If you want to share Apple data, they want you to think that the best way to do it is with Apple tools. Apple has been taking the same line for years. If you want to use an iOS device, you’d better be using iTunes to organize all your media. And if you want the “best” (in their opinion) experience out of that media, you’d better buy it through them. Sure, you can get your music somewhere else, but then its not on synced to the cloud or populated with album art or blah blah blah.

Let’s also take a look at the development of the “next generation” SolidWorks product, SolidWorks V6 (at least I assume they’re actually developing it, I’ve seen no real evidence of it yet.)  SolidWorks currently uses the Parasolid kernel (which is the basic underlying structure of the software).  Parasolid is owned by Siemens, who makes a competing software, Unigraphics NX. SolidWorks has been perfectly content leasing that kernel from Siemens, and using it to build a very successful product. But now Dassault is in charge, and all of a sudden SolidWorks needs to rebuild itself from the ground up, in order to accommodate Dassault’s V6 kernel, which is used in other Dassault products (Enovia, for one), and is entirely controlled by DS.  

That sounds to me like the early days of Apple computer, when Steve Jobs refused to build computer hardware, unless he also controlled the software that was used on it.  While it improved the performance of their products, for a long time it detracted from their ability to distribute those products. And although Apple now has more money than God, they’ve managed to alienate a sizable portion of their possible user base. Has anyone reading this NOT gotten into an Apple vs Android argument?  Android users regularly eviscerate Apple, not on the basis of their product, but their practices.   

Finally, while not currently in place, SolidWorks has recently considered the idea of distributing its software by way on an online store, similar to (or as part of) the 3DS store.  While this may honestly be more efficient, it will also likely do away with the need for resellers, and give Dassault complete control of SolidWorks sales and distribution. App Store anyone? 

But Apple has one luxury that SolidWorks no longer has: momentum. When Apple launches a product, it’s innovative, fully tested, and completely ready for public consumption.  Apple products take off like a rocket and carry them forward to the next, perfectly-timed release. SolidWorks has been stumbling forward of late in both their core product and peripheral offerings.  I don’t think many people would argue that, until the newest reveals for 2013, there has not been a lot off innovation in the core product for a few years now. They release a new version every year, whether it’s ready or not. That’s why we’ve seen two major hotfixes for 2012 already this cycle.  Conversely, Jeff Ray showed us a sneak peek of the next-gen product more than 2 years ago, and no one has wanted to say much about it since. It’s one thing to develop a product fully, it’s another to jump the gun to mollify your base.

I don’t dislike Apple (and I certainly don’t dislike SolidWorks). I own plenty of Apple stuff.  But I don’t think their tight-fisted control over every aspect of their technology has done them many favors. And I don’t think its what the future of technology – especially a highly collaborative technology like CAD – should be.

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