Wondering where the future lies
Dassault Systemes realized some time ago that Solidworks was coming to a dead end. The way it was so smartly programmed in the mid-1990s had made it the run-away best-selling mid-range MCAD program for two decades. For quite some time, the company's programmers expertly bolted on new features and extensions. Running Solidworks on a Windows desktop computer was a sure thing, and for many years it seemed that nothing would derail Dassault's gravy train.
But then boulders began falling onto the tracks. First, a boulder called SpaceClaim happened. Brilliantly marketed, its emphasis on direct editing changed the industry as much as Pro/E did in the late 1980s. Every single MCAD competitor pivoted towards direct editing -- whether dusting off old direct editing software (CoCreate + Pro/E = Creo) or writing new software from scratch, like Autodesk did with Fusion. (For all its impact, SpaceClaim turned out to be mouse-sized, only ever selling about 30,000 licenses.)
Then the mobile and social media boulders rolled onto the tracks. And another one called browser-based CAD. So then users began expecting MCAD to run effortlessly on various kinds of hardware and operating systems -- whether Mac laptops, Linux workstations, Android tablets, or iOS smartphones.
Dassault found itself locked into a quandary:
On the one hand, it had a best-selling MCAD program that it could not simply turn off, as two million commercial and educational users were depending on it for their livelihoods.
On the other hand, the core code in Solidworks was so old and too dependent on Windows to handle direct editing, be involved in social media, run in a Web browser, or be ported to other platforms.
(There are other technical problems that Solidworks faces of which I won't get into here.)
After launching a few transitions that soon became dead ends, Dassault settled on a two-prong strategy that seems doable:
- Keep existing customers happy by enhancing Solidworks as best as can be done
The catch: this support will end in an unknown number of years
- Modernize Solidworks indirectly through special-purpose modules; the catch
The new modules use Catia technology that is inherently incompatible with Solidworks
Well, I didn't say it was a great strategy, just one that's one that's doable for Dassault right now, stuck as it is. The plan is ultimately to migrate all Solidworks data to the same master database (called Enovia) as happened with Catia and other Dassault software -- collectively known by the rather generic name "3DExperience."
Dassault now has two special-purpose modules for Solidworks users which offer the following features:
- File-incompatible with Solidworks so that only dumb solids are exported and imported
- Different user interface and UX from Solidworks
- Available only through an expensive monthly rental fee that after two years costs as much as Solidworks itself
I didn't say they were great features. About the only thing they have in common with Solidworks is the name.
Dassault, I notice, is rolling out the new modules slowly, at a rate of one a year. The slow speed suits Solidworks users, who quite frankly don't care for chatting about their designs on social media, running CAD software in Web browsers, or storing their proprietary designs on someone else's distant computer.
For now, Solidworks users get to keep their software running. Their future, however, is Catia.
[This blog posting comes from the introduction I wrote to an article I am working on for a magazine, but then decided the intro was too long-winded, and I so posted it here.]