To be honest, 3-D printing technology just isn’t there yet for consumers. It’s expensive. It’s relatively lousy. And it takes a slew of skills—from technical to artistic—to produce anything worth printing in the first place. So specialists, like designers and engineers, can enjoy its rapid fabrication, and everyone else is left behind.
Today, Microsoft announced a crucial step to empower the next wave of 3-D printer adoption. Windows 8.1 will be the first OS to support 3-D printing natively on desktops and tablets. "Our thinking was, let’s make this as easy as writing and printing a Word document," says Shanen Boettcher, general manager at Microsoft’s Startup Business Group.
And that’s really the appeal of Microsoft’s pitch. The company tells me that 70% of 3-D printing is already done on Windows machines, but the problem is that it’s a clunky process. You have to design an image in a program like CAD, then output it to specialty printer software. From there you can start the glitch-prone printing process. Microsoft worked with hardware vendors—including MakerBot, 3D Systems, and Autodesk—to build the API glue that can allow any developer to build 3-D creation apps with a one-touch printing option. Just as iOS makes it easy for developers to plug in a scheduler or push notifications to iPhone apps, so, too, can Windows developers instantly support the relevant market of 3-D printers.
And it’s these developers that Microsoft is banking on creating a new wave of 3-D design software that can be more creative than technical.
"My kids have no problem building 3-D models in Minecraft all day long. How can you unlock 3-D creation for anybody to be able to do with a touch screen and their finger?" Boettcher asks. "To me that’s what’s really interesting."
"I hope there’s a whole spectrum of apps. We might see a picture frame you just want to put your name on. Custom napkin rings for your dinner party. Maybe there’s a trophy app for your kid’s soccer teams. In the art world, maybe people will make a virtual potter’s wheel to create a 3-D object quickly and personalize it."
On one hand, the discrete apps could begin to add up in the somewhat obnoxious iOS fart-button way. On the other, 3-D printing could make Windows 8 app development more enticing than it’s been, and it’s a field so young that we could use more software Darwinism than less. In fact, even if it fails to take off, Microsoft’s maneuver could nudge the rest of the industry to follow suit.
I still don’t think that 3-D printing is for everyone, but native Windows support makes for a nice start.