The Big Picture
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 9 (Sept. 2008)

The Big Picture

It’s very likely that the average consumer does not think very much about software giant Dassault Systemes, a leader in design and project life-cycle management (PLM) software, but the executives at Dassault Systemes spend a very long time thinking about the average consumer.

Dassault CEO Bernard Charles and his longtime henchman Dominique Florack, senior executive VP of products and R&D, have committed to a vision that links consumers with the data behind the products they buy. The company has been preparing the groundwork for its grand scheme for some time, with Charles doing the preaching and Florack leading the software engineering. And at DevCon, the company’s annual conference, Dassault attempted to communicate its end-to-end vision with its customers, developers, analysts, and the press. Dassault calls its vision “PLM 2.0.”

It starts at the top. The company has revamped its products to redefine the concept of PLM. The company has added a consistent visual front end to the company’s product design and life-cycle management products. The company is fully integrating the products, and this process is almost entirely complete. And, it has enhanced the collaborative capabilities of its offerings by enabling all the products to work on the server. Dassault’s grand vision includes SOA, or services-oriented architecture, meaning all of Dassault’s software will have online components allowing information exchange, and it has substantially revamped its architecture, building on a single-database structure. It’s an amazing feat: the software engineering equivalent of rebuilding a boat while sailing it.

Several years ago, Dassault acquired the PLM company MatrixOne, which it incorporated into its Enovia PLM product, along with its other PLM product, TeamCenter. Enovia is now the PLM base for the entire Dassault V6. It’s an astoundingly audacious project. It means that data is stored and accessible through a common database. In addition, Enovia, a visual PLM application, represents the front end for V6 if a company chooses to buy in. (Later, Derek Lane, Dassault’s US-based PR manager, clarified the point that customers don’t have to use Enovia if they don’t want to. Rather, they can continue to work as they always have or gradually move to V6.)

By server-izing its applications—including its design products CATIA, Simulia, and Delmia—Dassault is enhancing the ability to collaborate. The company has built upon a relational database, and data is accessed where it is. There is no moving or checking in and checking out. The perpetually smiling yet utterly fierce Bernard Charles told the audience at DevCon, in no uncertain terms, that this is the proper way to collaborate.

An important new product line in the V6 architecture is 3DVIA, which Dassault has developed using its 3D game development product, Virtools. And this is where the going started to get a little weird for the traditional Dassault user base. It wasn’t that they didn’t like the ideas being presented, but many weren’t so sure about how they would actually put 3DVIA to work in their workplace. 3DVIA will enable developers to create front-end applications that give users access to design data, but a lot of people in the room don’t come near the consumer. The example Charles described was that a consumer shopping for a car might go to that car online, be able to sit in it, drive it, and see if the air vents are within reach. The next step is that the shopper can specify color and interior, and maybe even the design of that vent.

The next step is not about information management; it’s about information immersion. “Language keeps us apart,” Charles told the audience. His goal is to create an environment in which participants can demonstrate ideas and collaborate, to “see what you mean.”

Dassault intends to integrate 3D visualization throughout its product line, and with V6, it has gone a long way toward its goal. Dassault even has added a cute game-like front end to V6 that lets users visually see how information connects and who has responsibility for all parts of a project.

In a later conversation, Pascal LeCland, executive vice president for R&D, told us: “We could not have accomplished V6 until we were able to get CATIA to operate on a server.” In addition, he explained that the underlying graphics engine is consistent, so that working with 3DVIA means seamless interaction with other design tools, including CATIA.

Dassault’s visual front end lets users query the database and see the results, rather than depend on a purely textbased system.

You would expect there to be a great deal more outcry about Dassault’s radical shift in vision—CAD users are among the proudest of information and the most protective of their territory. They have long resisted client/server models that put applications and data on a server. However, the company has clearly done a great deal of legwork with its base before rolling out V6. For instance, Dassault was at some pains to demonstrate increased levels of security and control in Enovia by enabling users to query a design and show (and distribute) only those parts of the design that are relevant. So, for instance, a contractor and car company can collaborate on a brake design without the contractor seeing any more of the total car design than necessary. This kind of feature has been dictated by Dassault’s customers.

The assurance of data integrity granted by centralized data is also an advantage, and it could well be enough to encourage companies to adopt V6 on a top-down basis, rather than waiting for crusty engineers to come around.

That’s not to say there was no grumbling. At times, there was a definite ripple of Quest que c’est? (What is that?) And, it might be significant that the sessions on 3DVIA were sparsely attended, while those sessions showing the changes in CATIA and in developing for Enovia (using Microsoft’s Visual Studio, by the way) were very well attended. This is what people are doing right now—they’re going to have to work their way to some of the more radical aspects of 3DVIA.

Reinventing Lots of Wheels
As users do make their way toward 3DVIA, they’ll find that Dassault has been busy creating a broad tool kit for everything anyone might want to do. Charles scoffed at Second Life: “We don’t want a second life,” he said, “we want first life.” And then he demonstrated Dassault’s own version of tools that certainly had something in common with Second Life, as well as with some other well-known toys and tools out there. Dassault and Microsoft collaborated on the development of Virtual Earth 3D and 3D XML. The sketch tool for Virtual Earth is distributed as 3DVIA Shape, and it was developed by Dassault. Similar to Google Earth and SketchUp, with Shape, people can create 3D models and place them in Microsoft’s Virtual Earth using geographic coordinates.

We asked representatives at Dassault why reinvent all this technology that’s already been done. The answer was that Dassault could not possibly achieve its vision internally, as the company revamps its product line, or externally, as it presents a virtual world with handles on it for design, collaboration, and sales, without building it from the ground up.

The vision that Dassault is working toward does not stop at CAD, or design, or even PLM. The company is envisioning the Internet as a door to an alternative 3D life. Just as Charles described the shopper virtually experiencing a car, other demos showed virtual stores where a retailer might try out different floor plans to be sure the products are optimally displayed. If you put a product on the bottom shelf, can the consumer see it? Can she reach it on the top shelf? Or, a shopper might visit that virtual store.

It’s big, alright. Apparently, Charles and his executives at Dassault figure there’s no point in dreamin’ if you don’t dream big. Can they do it? It’s hard for a company that has its roots in the industrial world to change its stripes and build a consumer business. It will take patience and persistence. In teaming with Microsoft, Dassault has found one of the most patient, persistent, and ruthless competitors out there. Indeed, Microsoft has had to take several runs at the game-console and music-player businesses to get it right, and it has hit the mark with the Xbox 360, while the jury is at least favorably inclined toward the Zune.

If this writer has interpreted it correctly, Dassault’s presentation slides put the era of its consumer products as taking off in 2011. Maybe that’s a little too soon, and that’s the trick with big dreams. You’ve got to be willing to stick with them for the long run. And that’s what Dassault has going for it: a company that helps design jet planes and new cars understands long-range planning. 

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at .