“Openness”. An interesting term isn’t it?

Over recent months I’ve spoken to many end users, software suppliers and channel partners on the topic of openness. The topic is (understandably) emotive and newsworthy so I thought I’d take this opportunity to jot down some opinions I’ve canvassed. For the purposes of this particular post, I’ll try to limit the context to openness relating to the product (design and) lifecycle management software market; relating both to users and the larger software suppliers as well as some of their third party partners. This of course is an open-ended conversation; with many contributors able to add value. Please don’t feel shy to comment.

To start with, I think it’s important to acknowledge that openness is very much in the eyes of the beholder. Not surprisingly, end-users and software suppliers have somewhat differing perspectives on the topic. So too do the third parties that develop solutions that integrate with the main software vendors solutions and their data. In addition, the term openness encompasses both technical and subjective elements; for instance, product capability, supplier transparency and the relationship between users (resellers) and software developers.

Feedback I’ve received from end users has reflected varying degrees of frustration regarding the topic. While many in the software community speak of openness; reality often falls (in some cases very far) short of expectations. To users, openness has more to do with freedom of choice as it does to technological capability. It’s about the unfettered right to own, retain, archive, disseminate and transport information; at their discretion and without (undue) overhead. To a user, standards are viewed as the responsibility of an open, subscribed community and should be freely available to all; free to use and free to develop with or on. In practical terms, users want to use what software suits them best, at any time, without loss of (data/transfer) fidelity. Naturally users feel more comfortable working with companies that empathise with these sentiments.

But let’s look back twenty or so years. The majority, if not all of the larger software vendors had varying strategies focused on proprietary formats and product interface.  Financial ‘lock in’ and concerns over client defection resulted in a predominantly closed data and integration ecosystem. Of course standards were, and continue to be common in the industry, and many software suppliers supported (or aspired to support) these; but one cannot but feel that their support was ‘despite’ as opposed to ‘reinforcing’ and ‘encouraged’.

Fast forward to current times and recent promotion of the openness of their solutions (and business models) by many of the main PLM suppliers reflects a realisation that openness is no longer an option; it’s an imperative. No doubt one of the reasons for this is that companies are no longer content to be coerced (or forced) into proprietary corners. Many, notably the larger companies with significant buying power, are ‘throwing down the gauntlet’ in the face of suppliers, forcing them to change their ways. In reality, most large companies (and indeed many smaller) operate in an (often globally distributed) environment characterised by multiple software solutions and multiple partners. Increasing software and supplier openness helps them to better capitalise on costly technology (and trained personnel) assets and reduces the cost of doing business within distributed, multi-vendor supply chain ecosystem.

The emergence of the Codex of PLM Openness (CPO http://www.prostep.org/en/cpo.html ) is an excellent example of users flexing their corporate buying-power muscles. Motivated (no doubt?) by frustrations relating to software and data portability and interoperability, a number of major German automotive manufacturers (BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen amongst them), set up the CPO to promote (even force perhaps?) a more transparent and ‘integrative’ software supplier ecosystem.

I think it would be wrong to suggest that the software supplier community has been totally resistant to change; far from it. In fact, all the major companies have made major strides forward; some pro-actively and others (more) reactively.

On the topic of software suppliers….each has their own slant on openness. Take Siemens PLM for instance. Offering their JT format for ISO certification (as a standard for 3D visualisation) was unique in the vendor community, a fact highlighted by Mike Zink, Siemens’ Interoperability Protocols Product Manager.  Feedback from (multi-vendor) end users has proved positive in terms of their perceived openness. User and partner observations also reflect improving attentiveness to the openness of their products, as well as to their corporate approachability, transparency and partner friendliness. While there’s been no waterfall event that drives these perceptions, their moves on JT I’m sure will be seen as notable juncture in their history. Siemens PLM is a founding member of the CPO and has shown support at the early stages for the OSLC (Open Services for Lifecycle Collaboration – http://open-services.net/ ). OSLC is a movement aiming to standardize the way that software lifecycle tools share data. The OSLC workgroup is headed by Rainer Ersch, Senior Research Engineer at Siemens Research and is extensively promoted by IBM’s Rational software group.

In recent times PTC’s public and analyst presentations highlight their efforts to be perceived as more open in nature. They consistently promote a more open nature in both the company and their products; most notably their CREO solution set. For those in the know, (some elements of) CREO, as too with Siemens’ Synchronous technology and Inventor Fusion from Autodesk, allows design engineers to work more efficiently with imported model data. PTC is also a supporter of the CPO. Recent discussions with Andrew Wertkin, (ex-MKS CTO now) CTO for PTC, highlighted not only their activities in the PLM world but also those in the (open) software world; support for interchange of requirements related information (RIF/ReqIF – Requirements Interchange Formathttp://www.omg.org/spec/ReqIF/ ) amongst these. Indeed many of the users that I’ve spoken to have been impressed at the changed nature of PTC over recent years and to their credit, they’re now viewed by many as a company with much more open products as well as a vastly improved personality.

Dassault Systèmes Dominique Florack’s (Senior Executive Vice President for Products, Research and Development) recent press release on openness contains an interesting thought worth sharing; “the term ‘open’ has long been thrown about with little behind it. The irresponsible claims of openness and accusations of non-openness have engendered unnecessary fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the industry and have adversely distracted many customers of PLM solutions”. Responding (no doubt) to competitive critique and customer pressures, Dassault’s recent software developments allow customers to more freely interoperate between versions of their own software (CATIA V5 and V6). They too have made significant play of their membership of the CPO and are keen to be seen as an active supporter in the “collaborative experience” of their customers. While Siemens PLM, PTC and Autodesk cite ‘reasonable’ relationships amongst their companies (cross-licensing of technologies such as kernels being mentioned), it appears that Dassault Systèmes’ relationship with its peers is less observable.

Autodesk’s view on openness highlights their constructive view of a customers’ reality. Grant Rochelle (Senior Director, Manufacturing Industry Marketing) commented in a recent discussion that ultimately Autodesk ‘shares’ its customer base with others. “No one has a claim to complete uniqueness in most customers”. He goes on to point out that all of the vendors must, of course, deliver to the needs of their customers, both large and small. Customers should be encouraged (not bullied) by vendors to choose the ‘best solutions for their businesses. Their support for a broad range of ‘in’ and ‘out’ capabilities dovetails with their belief (also acknowledged by both PTC and Siemens PLM) that customers will ultimately chose the best technologies to support their businesses.  With regards Autodesk’s new PLM 360 products; it’s early days of course, but their stated vision is to broaden (open?) PLM 360 to allow it to exist “adjacent to other vendors (PLM) offerings”.

I mentioned earlier openness and the needs of third party software developer community; by these I mean those developers that rely on data and programmatic interface (API) provided by other software suppliers. While all of the main software suppliers (mentioned above) provide programmatic interfaces to their products, relationships with these third parties and the ease of integration with the third party products varies enormously.  Autodesk for one allows all comers to freely access their APIs, but they too as with others have a paid for third party developer network. The hurdle with (most of) these developer networks often seems to be artificial barriers to entry; and I’m not directly speaking here purely of membership costs. Some of the third parties that I’ve talked to feel (sometimes artificially) excluded from these programs because of the competitive threat to the ‘source’. Of course, one can understand that it’s important to preserve one’s intellectual property, but in reality the world of openness is about transparency, fairness and collaboration. One doesn’t, for example, see Google excluding other mapping products from the Android market. In an ideal world, products should compete in their own right with value added above and beyond that offered by any third party developer. If software suppliers companies place artificial barriers to entry against (perceived) competitors, this inevitably acts as counter to claims for ‘openness’.  In a buying environment increasingly influenced by peer opinion enabled by(open) social networks, companies that perpetuate these practices may well find that these actions erode the perceived credibility of their ‘open’ messaging.

Openness is an essential ingredient to both the technical needs of and the working relationship between customers, their supply chains and importantly the software supplier community.  We’ve come a long way since the proprietary ‘bad old days’ and it’s refreshing to see so much focus on the topic by many of our software suppliers. In today’s global workplace freedom of choice isn’t a luxury, it’s essential. As the software community (in some cases reticently) moves to accept this, they can increase focus on what customers really want; great products and open, constructive relationships.