by Carsten Thomsen, former VP of Engineering, National Instruments.
The last few months have seen a number of quiet, but widespread, layoffs at NI, including some senior and respected staff related to LabVIEW. Many of these can be seen from their LinkedIn posts.
These moves, coupled with a growing concern from many LabVIEW users about the future of LabVIEW, have raised existential questions about the future of LabVIEW and Emerson/NI’s commitment to the platform.
Historically, NI was built on the very profitable IEEE-488 instrument controller business which helped bankroll the visionary, but extremely challenging development of LabVIEW, which was inspired by, and developed originally for the Mac. (Ironically, for which support has now been discontinued). This was followed by the multi-platform expansion, which really took off with the port to Windows. Coupled with LabVIEW, an aggressive Data Acquisition (DAQ) hardware strategy created a highly efficient platform for the entry-level user, who, more often than not, rapidly became a one-person hero in larger organizations (the “NI fox”). LabVIEW/DAQ was the name of the game and succeeded in a broad range of industrial, scientific, and academic applications. This was embodied in the NI slogans “The software is the instrument” and “The drivers are the ballgame”. The resultant success migrated to successively higher levels of corporations, and resulted in a recent change in NI Strategy.
Today, NI is organized with emphasis on three primary vertical market segments, with LabVIEW/DAQ being bundled into a fourth, less visible, “portfolio” business sold primarily by distributors. This business saw a significant drop in revenue in the last publicly reported quarterly results before the Emerson acquisition.
Seen at a macro level, I am concerned that NI is failing to address both the vertical industry segments and aggressively support the broad-based entry-level market. Also known as “the genius of the AND”.
In my interaction with LabVIEW users, I have always sensed a strong emotional impact on LabVIEW users. They feel empowered and successful by using a product which not only makes them very productive, but that is also is fun to use.
Many users truly love LabVIEW. The irony is that this passion seems more visible in LabVIEW user group meetings, than in the corporate messaging from NI. NI Week (“LabVIEW Woodstock”) has evolved from an engineering and technology focused event to a management venue (NI Connect). Nevertheless, the few remaining technical sessions, especially those focused on LabVIEW, have been among the best attended.
Looking at NI from the outside, I am not alone in my concern about the R&D staffing levels of LabVIEW/DAQ. In addition, many small to medium size LabVIEW users have stopped upgrading LabVIEW due to the lack of significant new functionality over the past 5-10 years. Many entry-level DAQ products are technologically obsolete, have increased in price, and many have been discontinued. It appears that the majority of engineering resources have been re-deployed to meeting the needs of the vertical markets, leaving the broad entry-level market exposed to new competitors. In addition, the high cost of the LabVIEW subscription model is prohibitive for small to midsize user whereas the large, corporate accounts effectively get huge discounts on LabVIEW when it is bundled with the other NI software products. So, the smaller user, who needs the discount most, ends up paying the highest price.
By scaling down the LabVIEW Academic program, NI seems to have surrendered the de facto platform in academia to Python. This directly impacts the skill level and preferences of graduates. And in its messaging NI tacitly seems to imply that LabVIEW is just another platform. Which may indeed be the objective truth today.
Now, it can convincingly be argued that the NI of today is just following the needs of the market. This is in contrast to the early NI which created the market by driving visionary, breakthrough innovation that inspired and enabled the success of the users.
I believe that today LabVIEW still has many, leading-edge capabilities. The easy-to-use, visual parallel processing program paradigm of LabVIEW, the automatic distribution of parallel tasks to multi-core processors by its run-time engine, coupled with its FPGA embedded programming, along with support for precision timing and triggering, and deep, high-speed integration with hardware, are just a few of its unique capabilities. These show how much innovation can be spawned by a proprietary language directly addressing the needs of engineers and scientists.
New Era of LabVIEW Newsletter Jan 2024 (PDF version)
The newsletter’s general commitments align well with the needs of the larger NI customers in the three market focus areas. However, this wording in the newsletter does not really specify how the portfolio market will be addressed, where the lack of DAQ hardware renewal and relevant LabVIEW positioning is needed to re-vitalize this market.
The failure to address this concerns me. Also, the NI statement “But we’re focused on the future of LabVIEW, not the past” is difficult to parse. Many of my concerns relate to whether NI’s new management truly understands and values the successful history of LabVIEW/DAQ whose modular building blocks were the magic in NI’s success. Having studied NI from the outside in the over 20 years since I worked there, I have seen a steady erosion of LabVIEW innovation and an almost complete abandonment of DAQ products, letting the product line languish as a cash cow despite the continued advancement of chip technology that could deliver even higher performance and lower costs, which was the longtime strategy of this core business. Staffing for these products in engineering and sales and marketing have been decimated.
My deepest concern is that LabVIEW may not succeed in the long-term. The current owners of Emerson/NI are large institutional investors more likely focused on shorter term financial results, and my guess is that they don’t fully understand or appreciate the historic and potential future value of LabVIEW. In addition, too much time may have already passed for LabVIEW to re-gain its lost momentum in the classic portfolio market. I could also fear that for Emerson to successfully encompass both the vertical and portfolio markets may be too big a mouthful.
Multiple options have been discussed publicly such as spinning off LabVIEW in a separate company, making the software open source, or making LabVIEW free. But perhaps more relevant is spinning off the “portfolio” business because LabVIEW and DAQ are an integrated part of the magic formula.
An interesting variant of this could be NI keeping LabVIEW for FPGA and the LabVIEW drivers necessary for the very high-end performance requirements, while core LabVIEW along with mainstream DAQ were spun off in a separate, independent company that returned to its roots, but with relevant cross-licensing agreements with NI. Such a spin-off should be on mutually beneficial terms regarding well-defined interfaces and code sharing, to prevent unnecessary forking of the source code. Although ambitious, I think this may be the most viable option, because I no longer believe that NI’s culture and strategy are compatible with the basic portfolio business.
I am passionate about seeing a successful future of NI which has been such as game changer for thousands of customers. It is my sincere hope that the NI community and management will contribute to creatively find a successful solution for all.
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