A few weeks ago SolidWorks CEO Jeff Ray posted an update addressing some of the questions that have come up following the announcements made back in February at SolidWorks World 2010. One of the things that Jeff touched on was the commitment SolidWorks made to supporting three platforms—the desktop, mobile devices, and online.
While the desktop is the platform used by most SolidWorks customers, online and mobile are (relatively) new territory for the design software industry. To get a better perspective on what’s happening in the world of hardware and software, I sat down to talk with SolidWorks founder Jon Hirschtick, who has been studying the changing computing landscape for the past few years.
Matt: Before we start talking about current and future platforms and technology, let’s go back in time. What was the situation like when SolidWorks first came out in 1995?
Jon: It’s easy to forget, but the first version of SolidWorks came out during a major technology shift. The introduction of the Windows 95 platform and new processor architectures combined to make the power of 32-bit computing available to 3D CAD users for the first time. Before that, 3D CAD had to be done on expensive UNIX workstations. It was new technology that made SolidWorks and other desktop 3D CAD systems even possible.
Matt: And what do you see happening now?
Jon: We’re in the middle of another major shift in computing, and how people use technology. I’m seeing changes in ways people interact with their devices, with touch and motion becoming more common. Think about devices like the iPad and iPhone, or gaming systems like the Nintendo Wii. The way you use those is radically different from the way you use a desktop computer with a keyboard and mouse.
There’s also a shift to using online apps and resources. Most people are comfortable doing their banking online now, and almost everyone has a Gmail account. Lots of businesses are using Salesforce.com for their CRM needs. Adobe has offered an online version of Photoshop for a few years. Millions of people are playing videos games online, whether that’s something like World of Warcraft or Xbox Live.
In a lot of ways, the design software industry is late to the party, and is only now starting to catch up. The technology and infrastructure is already there; we just have to start developing software to take advantage of it.
Matt: One of the weaknesses of hosted or online computing that’s often pointed out concerns Internet bandwidth and latency. Is the infrastructure robust enough for most people to go to 100% online applications?
Jon: Any computing model has advantages and disadvantages. With desktops, you always have your software installed locally, but you’re constrained by the processing power inside your computer, and it’s expensive to upgrade. Your computer is also vulnerable to viruses, crashes, and data loss. Moving resources online largely eliminates these problems, but also forces you to change your expectations about computing in general.
Depending on where you are in the world, you may have to live with some amount of latency, but what you lose there will be made up by the increased computing power you have access to, meaning your models rebuild faster, simulations are available on demand, and so forth. You’ll also have access to rendering capabilities far beyond anything available for a desktop computer. And bandwidth is increasing exponentially at this point—I regularly stream (not download) full HD movies to my TV. If that’s possible now, there should be no problem moving design software online.
Another advantage is that applications can be specially written for other devices, like tablets or smartphones, and can leverage the strengths that those devices offer. So your data becomes more portable, and you’re not confined to just your desktop workstation.
Matt: What about the way people work? How is that affecting the technology?
Jon: Good question. I’m seeing two major things here. The first is that more and more companies are outsourcing some amount of their design work, or building ad hoc teams in different parts of the world. This creates an increased need for data to be accessible anywhere, at any time. Leveraging the Internet makes this simpler than emailing files back and forth, which is something that the upcoming SolidWorks data sharing application will address.
Secondly, the explosion in social networking in the last ten years is making people more communicative and collaborative, and any new applications should be built to take advantage of team-based design. The days of a single person designing a product from start to finish are largely over, and we need to make it easy for teams to communicate and share data.
Matt: One last question—you’ve done a lot of research lately into online data storage and security. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of each?
Jon: When you only store your data locally, you have complete control over it. But it’s also pretty easy for someone to steal it using a thumb drive, or even a SIM card from a cell phone. And unless you’re working somewhere with military-spec security, your computers are relatively vulnerable to viruses and attacks. Especially if you’re like many of our customers and don’t have dedicated IT staff. You’re also vulnerable to data loss if you’re not adhering to a strict backup protocol.
When you store your data online, you’re not as vulnerable to local issues, and the security protocols at companies like Google are better than anything most of our customers have access to. There’s also a considerable amount of redundancy that takes place, so if one drive in a data farm goes down, there’s a backup somewhere else. But on the downside, network congestion or outages can occasionally prevent you from accessing your data.
It’s like the difference between keeping your valuables in a bank vault, or a safe in your closet. Sure, banks can get robbed, but homes get robbed more often than banks. So, where would you rather keep your grandmother’s wedding rings?
There have been some questions that have arisen on the web in response to this entry. I thought I would address them here so that anyone with similar questions can see the answers as well.
There have been a few comments about actual SolidWorks technology and possible ways of making online and locally-installed software work. We’ll be posting more in the coming weeks, so rather than get into explanations here and now, I’d suggest you keep watching our blog.
As some of you have mentioned, the upcoming (code-named) Connect offering will be our first online app, and we’re excited to see what people think. Connect is something that will be purely optional for SolidWorks customers, and offered in addition to our existing data management products. It’s intended for customers who want and need a data management solution, but can’t support the IT resources required.
When Jon and I talked, I mentioned a potential situation where customers are required to keep project data behind the company firewall. Questions about this situation have been brought up by some users as well. We don’t plan to force anyone to online applications, and if a SolidWorks customer needs to continue to manage and store data locally, we’ll continue to provide options for that customer.
Similarly, we’ve never said that our next-generation software will be 100% reliant on an Internet connection and remote data storage for full functionality. In all likelihood, the amount to which most customers using these new products access “the cloud” will vary depending on their needs. As Jeff Ray mentioned before, we’ve committed to supporting desktop, mobile and online platforms, and there's no need to think that people who want to remain on a locally-installed desktop application will not be able to leverage our next-generation technology.