Where the Interoperability Movement Falls Flat

Ah, interoperability. A lot of changed over the course of the last few years. The CAD industry has become reinvigorated. 3D visualization seems to have become more focused on applications as opposed to just cool technology. PLM systems have started to become mainstream while more granular systems have simultaneously emerged. And despite all that change, at least one thing has been very consistent.

The call for interoperability isn’t going away.

I’ve gotten an earful at the 3DCIC event. It was a hot topic at COFES. It seems like it resurfaces time and again in the twitter-sphere. It’s like a clarion calla amongst the community.

But here’s the schtick: it doesn’t seem to make much headway. Well, wait a second. That’s not quite right. Let me explain, which leads me to this point…

Sprinting towards Read Interoperability

Lots of progress has been made on one front: better capabilities in software applications and systems to read, import, synchronize or connect to other software applications and systems. Yes, I know that last bit might be confusing. I’ll talk through some examples to clarify.

  • Let’s look at PTC’s Creo. Long ago they acquired a company’s technology that eventually became ProductView. It’s a handy 3D visualization technology that can read just in 3D models from just about any CAD application. They’ve now integrated that capability into Creo. So it’s ability to read native CAD files has improved. Similar moves have been made with other software provider’s products.
  • Next, let’s also look at something like Siemens PLM’s Active Workspace (AWS) as well as Actify’s Centro. Both of those tools can connect to other enterprise systems like ERP, PLM and others and overlay information on top of 3D models. Very handy for folks that worry about designing by taking enterprise considerations into account. Again, there are others doing something in the same vein.
  • Lastly, look at Inforbox, which was just acquired by Autodesk, as well as Alcove9. Both of those cloud-kinda services have google-like spiders that crawl product data that sits on desktops as well as in enterprise systems. A google-like search not only reveals where the data resides but also provides some visualization of that product data. 

Here’s my point. Lots of software providers are bulking up their capabilities to read their competitor’s product data. And why not? This kind of capability enables that provider’s customers to spend more time in their software as opposed to a competitors. It honestly is self-serving. Which… brings me to my next point…

… and Crawling towards Openness

How many software providers do you know that have made it easier to read their product data with competitor’s applications or systems? Yep. I haven’t seen hardly any movement in that direction either.

Now I’ve seen all sorts of argument as to why software providers should open up. Some posit that the product data built by CAD software or held in a PLM system is the company’s data, why should it be held hostage? Others take an altruistic stance by suggesting it would be good for the industry, providers could compete on who has the best capabilities!

Let’s be completely frank here. Does anyone truly expect a software provider to do something that would essentially let their customer migrate away from their products more easily? I don’t. Doing something like that voluntarily is tantamount to career suicide. These companies exist to make money, just like any other company, even the one that you work for. Right?

Now, there is something called the Codex of PLM Openness which has been organized by the ProSTEP organization. The 1.0 version of the openness model was developed in conjunction between BMW, Daimler, Dassault Systèmes, IBM, Oracle, PTC, SAP, Siemens PLM, T-Systems and Volkswagen. But I have to be honest, I have not seen much of any movement or progress on that front. I’d love to hear the latest there.

Where does that leave us? It brings us to this point…

What Will Move the Needle?

In my mind, it’s quite simple. The answer is leverage. Here’s what I mean. New capabilities that software providers are not willing to develop voluntarily come to market in one of two ways.

  • Mass Competitive Losses: If one software provider starting losing large numbers of ‘deals’ to a competitor because of openness, then that would motivate them to change their tune. But there are many problems with this stance. First, it would be hard to prove that openness is the issue resulting in lost deals. Second, and more importantly, none of the current players are willing to place bets in terms of development resources that openness will differentiate them. As a result, there is no competitive advantage by any of them in this regard. Thereby, there won’t be any massive competitive losses over openness. Of course, this could be an opportunity that a startup could leverage.
  • A ‘Heavy’ Requires It: The other way it might happen is if a massive OEM makes openness part of the RFP to change software applications or systems. Software providers aren’t willing to make new capabilities part of a new deal unless they are exceedingly large. But a landmark win falls into this sort of category where they do unusual things. The fly in the ointment is this: is openness a higher priority than other new capabilities? Furthermore, are such large OEMs willing to demand openness instead of negotiating over price? In general, the answer has been a resounding no in the past.

Where Does That Leave Us? 

Well, not with much. Unless a competitor steps forward with openness as a key differentiator and succeeds or a major OEM prioritizes openness as part of a massive deal… well… we’re like to continue down the path we’ve been on.

I’d like to be more positive. However, this is what I’ve seen in my roughly 20 years in the industry. However, here’s my advice. Recognize that software providers will not do this voluntarily. Recognize that they essentially must be forced into it. The leverage that customers have in this regard is money. That drives software provider’s behaviors. The real path to interoperability lies in that direction.

Summary and Questions

Here’s the recap. 

  • We’ve seen lots of new capabilities from established as well as new software providers that read, import, synchronize or connect to other software applications and systems.
  • We’ve seen little progress in terms of openness in allowing other software applications and systems to read, import, synchronize or connect to data in their software applications and systems.
  • Massive competitive losses or requirements from a large OEM could force software providers into more openness, however there are other issues that undermine those possibilities.
  • In summary, this all comes down to money. That is the leverage that could force software providers into more openness. The real path to interoperability lies in that direction.

 OK. That’s my take. It may not be popular. But I think it reflect reality. What are your thoughts? Can someone provide a progress report on the Codex of PLM Openness? Are there other alternative paths to getting software providers to be more open? I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.