By Glenn Kennedy
Over the past 12 months, I have visited several Web sites that provide products and services to the design and manufacturing community. Offerings vary from traditional software and hardware at discounted prices to applications that can be rented on an as-needed basis from Application Service Providers. For example, 3Dshare.com allows users to translate and repair solid model files over the Internet.
Other ASPs, like Alibre.com, provide an entire range of CAD, PDM, and collaboration tools that are rented on a month-by-month basis. Yet another approach to the ASP business model is a site called web4engineers.com, which provides its own collaboration and project management tools and can also Web-enable existing engineering applications.
Compare the ASP method of software distribution to traditional methods of ownership and maintenance, and you'll see the benefits. If your CAD application does not contain the translator or design tool required for a project, your only other options are to buy an add-on module (if one exists) or a new application altogether. Another benefit is that by offloading processing tasks to the ASP server, you can continue to use your workstation while the ASP crunches the numbers.
Time and again, however, I've witnessed a huge marketing push to a company's Web site that ends in disappointment for customers. Many sites fail to state what they actually offer, and include pages with messages such as "Coming soon." It has led me to ask: Why do so many companies spend so much time and energy on marketing campaigns to promote a Web site or ASP solution that is not finished?
Since I am not the only one asking this question, I decided to query some companies about it. The answer: The Internet allows for feedback directly from a potential customer base. The key word here is potential. Normally, a company will go through several steps to make sure a product will do well in the marketplace: beta releases, trade show presentations, and focus groups-all expensive and time-consuming.
With the Internet, however, a company can spend a relatively small amount of money to create and promote a Web site. If it sees tremendous customer interest in its products or services, then it can continue to develop those products and grow the Web site. If not, it can change the direction of the product or close its doors completely-without a warehouse full of unwanted inventory.
So where does this leave the consumer? Though I was frustrated by sites with incomplete pages or beta ASP services that did not always work correctly, I began to consider the costs to me. Every site I visited that did not offer a complete product did not charge me a dime. One site offered a service that would automate the quoting process for machined parts. I uploaded a few files and submitted them for analysis. After three days, the reports arrived-incomplete. But I also received an email from the development team requesting the use of the files to see why they did not process completely. Suddenly, I was involved with the evolution of an ASP service. From this perspective, things became exciting. How many times have you been asked to help shape the development of a new software application?
With this new shift in communication between developers and consumers comes a need for responsibility from both parties. It is important for developers to set reasonable expectations for an application's current capabilities and limitations. If you raise our expectations too high, then our disappointment will be just as high.
For their part, consumers are responsible for useful criticism and feedback. If you try an application and it crashes or falls short of expectations, send an email to the developers. Throwing up your hands and vowing never to visit the site again will most likely help kill a tool that could serve you well a month or two later when it is completely functional. Many of the sites I visited several months ago have evolved into capable and useful places to get design projects done. If in the past several months you visited a site that left you less than impressed, take another look.
Give developers credit for taking a chance and putting their products on the Web early enough for you to test them without cost. And give the Internet credit for providing a forum that brings application developers and users closer than they have ever been before. Glenn Kennedy is a consultant who writes about the CAD industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.