Is there a solution to the interoperability problem?

Over the past fews days I have been commenting on the Autodesk – ODA law suit. Although my observations have been strictly related to the law suit only, some may have got the impression that I was leaning towards one side. I want to keep the legal battle out of this one.

Interoperability is a big big problem for the CAD software industry. I will not waste my time and yours in describing the problem because, firstly, I don’t know where to start, and secondly, we all are facing it, so we know all about it. The question is: Is there a solution?

In my view, yes. And you know what? Someone has already done it.

I usually don’t go out of my way to praise a particular CAD software vendor, mainly because I hate being called somebody’s pet, but also because I would like to maintain my neutrality. But I will make an exception in this case. I am talking about Robert McNeel & Accosiates and their CAD software Rhinoceros. McNeel has done it right and if all other CAD vendors followed suit, the interoperability problem would simply vanish.

When McNeel created Rhino, like any other vendor, they created a native file format for it and gave it an extension – 3DM (stands for 3D Model). But, unlike other vendors, they also founded the OpenNURBS Initiative, through which they offered free software libraries to read and write 3DM files. These libraries are available to everyone, even rivals. Their software license reads:

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the “Software”), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software.

There are absolutely no strings attached. Strings such as “for evaluation/educational use only”, or “not for use in a commercial environment”. Commercial use is not only allowed, it is encouraged. There are no copyright or copyleft restrictions. Truly extraordinary.

By doing this McNeel has made it very easy for Rhinoceros to exchange data with other CAD systems. They even offer free plug-ins to other CAD systems, such as SolidWorks, to read and write 3DM files. No need to reverse engineer. No file corruption. No “trusted” and “non-trusted” nonsense.

And people like me have taken things even further. When we wrote TerrainCAD, our terrain modeling software, instead of creating a proprietary file format and adding to the mess, we simply used the 3DM file format as the native format for TerrainCAD.

Now imagine if all CAD software vendors did the same thing. End users would spend their time doing useful work as opposed to fixing badly imported drawings, or even worse, recreating a drawing from scratch. The interoperability problem would simply not not be there anymore.

If one vendor has done it and not gone out of business, there is no reason why others cannot do it.