The DWG conundrum

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At AutodeskÝs recent UK user event Martyn Day caught up with AutodeskÝs CEO, and talked about the Open Design Alliance and the political upheaval that was going on in the management there.

The Open Design Alliance (ODA) is an organisation that is dedicated to reverse engineering AutodeskÝs DWG file format. Many of AutodeskÝs competitors pay this organisation a fee and in return they get the libraries that enable them to open and save into a DWG file. The organisation has been very vocal making claims that the DWG file format is encrypted but has managed to reverse engineer it. Autodesk has consistently denied this accusation but admitting that in the last version of DWG (2007), Autodesk did place an encrypted component in the format but this was only to embed a ÙwatermarkÝ. All this watermark actually is, is an Autodesk copyrighted text string and AutoCAD only uses this to recognise DWGs that were created in AutoCAD and those that were not (without the watermark). Recently the ODA has announced full support for the AutoCAD 2007 DWG file format including writing the watermark, which is potentially a legal issue for Autodesk, should they so wish to take it further, as by the very nature of writing that sentence the ODA potentially infringes a copyright. Bass acknowledged it was a concern but didnÝt appear to be in a litigious mood.

" Bass views the Open Design Alliance as a company that just reverse engineers for all his competitors and creates tech support queries for his company. "

He told me the watermark was added to AutoCAD because they were finding that support calls relating to corrupted DWGs had a high correlation to AutodeskÝs technical support finding that these DWGs originated from non-Autodesk products. The watermark lets AutoCAD potentially recognise non-AutoCAD DWGs and AutoCAD 2007 is configured to alert the user that the file thatÝs about to be open is from a non-AutoCAD source. This alert can be switched off. If Autodesk wanted to, it could potentially use this watermark to stop AutoCAD from loading any non-Autodesk DWG file. Bass told me that this was not the intention but some customers were running into trouble when running mixed AutoCAD and non-AutoCAD DWGs. He related a story of an aerospace customer that had one of its teams running IntelliCAD (an AutoCAD-like clone that uses the ODA DWG library). The company experienced consistent DWG corruption and Autodesk tracked down the problem to files that were coming from this team.

AutodeskÝs view of the ODA is that itÝs not what it says it is and the ODA message that it exists to assist users in gaining access to their data, seemed to particularly ÙnarkÝ Bass. In the past the ODA claims to have offered Autodesk membership, but one of the stipulations is that by being a member you put Ùinto the potÝ everything you know about the AutoCAD DWG file format. Obviously Autodesk knows everything. So what would it get in return? The ODA does have a DGN file format (Bentley MicroStation) product which would be of some interest to Autodesk as it has just paid to reverse engineer this format separately but all the other CAD vendors that are ODA members have no obligation to divulge their file format (SolidWorks, PTC etc.). Bass thinks it would be a useful organisation if indeed all these CAD companies would open up their formats and cross licence each otherÝs libraries.

He told me ÙI want to compete on product capability, not formatÝ. Bass went so far as to contact the ODA and suggest that instead of reverse engineering DWG if the ODA could get all the vendors to sign-up and agree to openly licence their formats, then he would willingly give them the DWG libraries. He says they declined the idea. Bass concluded that if the ODA were serious about acting for users and pushing openness then a structure whereby they acted as the holder of all the vendorsÝ format ÙkeysÝ and monitored the libraries and licensing, then that would be a valuable thing to do. As things stand, Bass views the ODA as a company that just reverse engineers for all his competitors and creates tech support queries for his company.

In an unusual industry move, Bass said that he had recently done the rounds of the main CAD vendors one by one, making them the same Ùshow me yours and IÝll show you mineÝ file format offer. He said that both Bentley (MicroStation) and Dassault Systemes (SolidWorks, Catia) declined but some had accepted. He told me IÝd have to wait till the official announcements to find out who Autodesk has done deals with. I would guess UGS (Solid Edge, NX) and/or PTC (Pro/Engineer WildFire) may be more open to this as in the Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) arena, native file access would be very useful.

Conclusion

In the CAD industry, file format issues are no laughing matter. Proprietary file formats have been one of the key issues in hampering data exchange – in fact a huge industry has been built up servicing engineering firms that send each other data created in different CAD files. ItÝs never said, but CAD companies typically rely on the fact that data is hard to fully migrate between systems to keep users hooked to their programs. In making a switch CAD managers have to take into account the legacy issues that proprietary formats generate.

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In the past Autodesk has certainly been very protective of its format and when threatened by IntelliCAD in the early days, ran a very negative advertising campaign, claiming only Autodesk products are 100% DWG guaranteed, as IntelliCAD used a reverse-engineered DWG. When Autodesk introduced the watermark in AutoCAD 2007, which warned uses they were about to open a non-AutoCAD DWG, I must admit that I was very concerned that this was a return to old form but these are different times and Autodesk doesnÝt seem to be under much threat at all, quite the opposite.

I can see how the offer of joining the ODA seems unfair to Autodesk but I can also see why BassÝs vision of the ODA becoming the industry file format keeper wonÝt work either. Trust is a big issue in this highly competitive market and while all vendors may sign up for such a deal, under tough competition, IÝm sure companies under threat would drop out as they would not want their competition to have such easy access to their customerÝs data. If we were free to move between CAD systems like choosing a Web browser, that would make for interesting times! Also, the ODA provides DWG capability to many companies. If it stopped reverse engineering DWG, and Autodesk were to provide its own libraries, should something happen and Autodesk pulls out of the deal, then there would be a big engineering job to catch up.

Stop press
Since this article was written Autodesk has filed a legal action against the ODA. The action is based on trademark infringement related to Autodesk’s DWG watermark and on unfair competition by the ODA’s latest DWGdirect libraries, of which Autodesk is requesting that the ODA stops distribution.

The other thing that is probably hampering BassÝs aspirations to break the format log-jam is that of AutodeskÝs own success. AutodeskÝs growth is amazing in the industry. It is heading rapidly to be a $2billion company. Over the last three years it appears to have woken up and become much more active in developing new products and taking on big new markets. When an 800lb gorilla comes knocking on your door to swap formats and you know they have the resources to eventually overrun your market, if they should so wish, youÝd have to have considerable confidence in your product and development team to stay ahead of the game.

www.autodesk.com
www.opendesign.com

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