Only a fraction of established software companies have bought into the new computing models that have challenged the tech world in the last few years: open source and social. We’ve all heard of Linux, Red Hat, MySQL, Firefox, and other open source software products that have achieved great success. We all know Facebook is the shining example of the power of a vibrant social network.
Clearly not every software company should be literally open source—i.e., with all code owned, managed, and continually modified by the user community. But every software company should at least consider adopting some of the characteristics of open source software that can make life better for the consumer. These include:
- no-charge software product,
- widely accessible product that enables viral distribution,
- grassroots product specification,
- constant upgrades, and
- optional paid support.
Transparency is a key part of both the open source and social models. Users increasingly expect to ask questions of vendors publicly, and get those questions answered just as publicly. Users expect to propose improvements to the software and have these suggestions duly considered, maybe even voted on by colleagues, and implemented. And even if the software is free, users expect the maker to ensure its quality. Some daring new-generation vendors even publish user satisfaction ratings on their websites.
All this boils down to a shift in the software’s “center of gravity” from the vendor to the user community. The user community’s voice is amplified, and the community decides what’s going to be in the software. That’s the model that’s emerged from the evolution of software over the past two decades, and it appears this is the way software will continue to go. Although many traditional software companies haven’t yet embraced these new principles, we’ve applied the “open source” style of doing business to DraftSight, our new free software for reading, writing, and sharing DWG files. We couldn’t be happier with the results: rapid uptake, high satisfaction, and dramatic expansion of our customer base.
We have also created an online community to support it. DraftSight’s social network community is a Facebook-like system for users to share ideas, support each other, and tell us what belongs in the next version of DraftSight software. We have done everything we can to make DraftSight software and the draftsight.com community experience compelling, attractive, and worthy of a recommendation. This is critical because our marketing budget is zero. It’s all word of mouth. Our mantra is, “let’s make people smile and tell a friend.”
You might be asking why we don’t go all the way and release the code as true open source software. Well, we’ve given it some thought. CAD software is mission critical: the brakes engineers are designing are trusted to actually stop cars, and wings are expected to keep planes aloft. Therefore, most users want the code to stay with a trusted vendor.
You might also be asking what’s in it for a vendor who creates free software, empowers a user community, and makes everything transparent? Well, there’s a lot. Free software gives prospective users a low-risk way to become part of your family. Users get comfortable with you and consider buying other products and offerings. You can generate revenue, e.g., through a fee for premium support, though users will expect it to be a low one.
Then there’s valuable market research to be gained. You can learn a lot more from a public launch of free software than you can by distributing it the old way. For example, we were surprised to see how many Mac users wanted our software, and how many users came from industries beyond our usual target market.
Of course, there’s a catch. Trying these new open and social strategies takes courage. You are essentially putting your brand on the line. When you release free software to the world and invite everyone into a public beta, that software needs to work well. If nine features work spectacularly but the tenth one freezes, you can expect to be taken to task.
And you need to follow through. If you invite the community to suggest software upgrades, you must follow up and deliver on a timely, rolling schedule. No more yearly releases.
By doing all this right, you can dramatically expand your customer base. By failing, you can alienate your existing customer base. The risk here entails a potential reward, yet there’s also a risk in doing nothing. Either way, it’s time for vendors to take a close look at their product development and distribution strategy.
Jeff Ray is the CEO of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corporation. Send comments about this commentary to firstname.lastname@example.org.