The first week of May, I was at OTCHouston (Offshore Technology Conference 2016) – a mega congregation of equipment and technology suppliers, as well as oil majors focused on offshore exploration and such. My ulterior motive was to get a good grasp of the software applications landscape within this sub-segment of the oil and gas industry. So I decided to forgo the conference track and simply focus on the exhibit floor.

Tucked away in the thousands of equipment suppliers and offshore services companies were about 56 software product companies that either addressed the offshore drilling space in particular, or the oil and gas industry in particular. As such, my takeaways will likely to be different from observations reported by other attendees:

  1. Microsoft Rules: Other than mobile OS, Microsoft dominates all other segments as the primary technology stack used to build software. I believe the primary reason is that the target platform for these solutions is almost exclusively Windows. Another key insight was that within the oil and gas industry, there is a perceived litigation risk around open source technologies. The rationale appears to be that with open source, you have to keep track of literally thousands of licensing arrangements (which presents a bigger opportunity for missing something). With Microsoft, you are assured that whatever risks there might be with respect to intellectual property, they are assumed by Microsoft. So you see a lot of WPF desktop applications, Windows drivers for specialized hardware (SCADA/HMI) and really meager browser UI penetration. Even graphics-rich applications (that somebody from the software technology world would think would be dominated by Apple computers) is exclusively built in C/C++ and Windows. I didn’t see a single Apple front end in the entire exhibit floor… amazing!
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    Obviously, this is a small sample set of 56 software development firms; I do believe some of the in-cloud systems that, for example, do physics modeling on HPC servers do have non-Microsoft technologies. My key takeaway is – when possible – software gets built on Microsoft. If you want to move away from that default, you better have compelling business reasons to do so.
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  2. Android Rules: Mobile is one space conceded by Microsoft and it has been ably filled by Android devices. I didn’t see any software vendor showcasing iOS devices, although they probably have an iOS app if somebody asked for it. Mobile devices in the offshore context require Zone 1 Hazard ratings which may mean ruggedizing and an extra layer of glass; as well as tight controls on what apps show up on the interface. As such, the better control Android offers to the software developer really helps. For mobile devices, intermittent Internet connection is the core of every use case.
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  3. Tip of the Spear is cutting edge; back-office not so much: In the offshore drilling context, physics modeling–computational fluid dynamics, ship building, complex structural analysis and design using finite element analysis–are the cutting edge. This is where the PhDs and highly educated experts are investing their time and energies, and producing some really cool looking output. SCADA/HMI is another area where optimization to drive real time data visualization in the ~20ms range are already in place. But backoffice technologies – especially in the enterprise management space – appear ancient. This is probably the greatest challenge as well as opportunity for software developers targeting this industry.
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  4. Center of Gravity of Software Development for Oil & Gas isn’t Houston: I came in thinking Houston is an “oil & gas town”, ergo software firms targeting oil & gas must be concentrated around Houston. While I did find several firms from the Houston Area, for the offshore drilling sub-segment the center of gravity of software is around the North Sea/Brent Oil region: UK, Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Canadian west coast i.e. Victoria BC.
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  5. Very few startups: Most of the exhibitors were large companies or smaller firms that have lived for a long time in their own niche. I saw only a few startups, none specific to the offshore drilling sub-segment.