Sunday, January 16, 2011

Comments on New Software Models

The January 2011 issue of Desktop Engineering magazine includes a commentary by Jeff Ray, CEO of Dassault Systemes SolidWorks Corporation, titled Open to New Software Models in which he advocates the open-source/social business model to software vendors.  Keep in mind that in 2010 Dassault introduced DraftSight, free software for working with DWG files.  While Ray doesn't advocate making the source code freely available, he does promote other aspects of the open/social paradigm.  Quoting directly from the article, these aspects are:

  • no-charge software product,
  • widely accessible product that enables viral distribution,
  • grassroots product specification,
  • constant upgrades,
  • optional paid support.

Who doesn't like free stuff?  When it comes to free software, people love being able to download and try new stuff without any hassle.  If it solves their problems (see the other bullet points) so much the better.  One might argue that the software product I work with is kinda free - at least in China where it has been hacked and cracked mercilessly.  Seriously, a free product removes a large barrier to adoption and can get you a large user base very quickly and those users learn about you (hopefully good things).  As a business, however, giving away the fruits of your labors is counterproductive.  As the old joke goes, you have to make up for it with volume.

I don't understand the call to provide a "widely accessible product that enables viral distribution."  To me this simply says that once you've decided to give the software away for free make sure it's prominently displayed on your web site so people can find it (i.e. don't put a bushel over a lamp.)

SolidWorks has created an online, Facebook-style community to encourage and sustain users' dialogs about the product including self-help and collection of feedback.  Certainly this contributes to collecting what Ray calls a "grassroots product specification."  But other than using a social media style forum, this is what good software companies should be doing anyway - being market driven.  By listening to this open dialog among and between users the software company can also learn a lot about the market that can guide future product plans.  Excellent idea.

I'd also opine that "constant upgrades" are something else that should be expected of a software company.  Ray says that if you have a public beta and 1 of your 10 new features fails, you need to have the courage to be taken to task publicly.  On the other hand, it is beta.  One might say that if a feature fails in beta the software company should expect a large volume of richly detailed feedback from the community.

"Optional paid support" finally brings us back to the profit motive which is a good thing for any business.  For open-source or no-charge distribution the "freemium" model is one that's been adopted by many and is a good balance the benefits of free with income.  Ray does say that their marketing budget for DraftSight is "zero" but I think he's being a little tongue-in-cheek - after all, someone had to write this article and get it placed.  Besides, why wouldn't you want to market the availability of a cool, new, useful, community-driven, and free product?

Overall I agree with Ray.  Engineers can be a pretty stodgy bunch and adopting some of the ideas of modern software distribution and support can be a good thing.

P.S. These are just my opinions and you should not infer that our software will be distributed according to this model anytime soon.

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