Is This a Big Deal?
Earlier this week, Microsoft announced support for 3D printing in Windows 8.1. It will become easier for 3D printing manufacturers to develop drivers for Windows. It also suggests application developers will be able to call a standard printer interface for 3D printers, just like for 2D printers.
Developers will be able to license an SDK (Software Development Kit) with sample code, or choose basic v4 printer driver options for 3D printing within the Dot Net environment. Legacy 3D printers that require Serial over USB will be supported with v3 printer drivers, but the v4 drivers will support the USB interface natively. Windows Hardware Certification will be available, allowing auto-recognition, auto-installation and auto-updating through Windows Update. In other words, Microsoft is offering Windows 8.1 developer tools that will not only make developing 3D printing apps and drivers easier, it also has the potential to improve 3D printing ease of use, stability and speed.
For the Windows 8.1 user, it means plug and play 3D printing. Connect your 3D printer to your computer and the operating system will recognize the printer by name and brand (if the manufacturer made compliant drivers). The Microsoft 3D printing pipeline includes slicing, model repair (printability correction), reorientation and printer-specific settings. Meaning, each 3D printer's preference settings can be different and exclusive to each specific printer, just as it is in the 2D world with HP and Epson. A driver for a single extruder printer will not give you options to print with three extruders at twice your printer's best reliable speed.
Windows 8.1 3D applications (Microsoft and AutoDesk are already working on them) built to take advantage of the new 3D printing pipeline will be able to 3D print as easily as a computer currently uses an inkjet or Laserjet. Just choose print from the menu, or click the print button. This does nothing to eliminate personal class hardware pains like turning screws to level a print bed, but it could eventually make the software interface side so simple the average user takes it for granted.
It should be noted that in his presentation, Kris Iverson, Principal Software Design Engineer at Microsoft, mentioned testing on everything from a Cube to a Stratasys Dimension, so the technology is intended for both personal and professional class systems. This would explain why the pipeline has texture and format conversion considerations. 3D Studio Max, Maya, Lightwave, Cinema 4D, etc. users will eventually be able to print from their design environment without converting to STL, giving advanced CGI software the ability to natively take advantage of both high and low end 3D printers without the aid of additional software.
This is a bigger proposed shift than one might realize. Microsoft is clearly trying to move 3D printing from the CNC niche into a new family of printing devices, both 2D and 3D. This is what the early days of mass consumerization are supposed to look like.
Does this mean the end of open source software popularity in personal 3D printing? Yes and no.
This will definitely reduce the popularity of open source software interfaces in 3D printing, because the truth is, a dozen good unpaid software engineers can't compete with Microsoft in the long run. Microsoft has the resources to make software friendlier, better and more powerful (although it can be argued that's not how they always use their programming muscle). Within a few years, the majority of 3D printers will probably have been adapted to take advantage of Microsoft's new SDK and Apple will have followed suit.
Before my friends in the RepRap community get out the pitchforks and head to Redmond by way of Arizona, I'd like to relate Iverson's response to someone who voiced your concerns. "I will personally assist any developer who would like to implement a Windows 8.1 3d printer driver to support the RepRap community. I will even treat them to a coffee."
The change will come, but not immediately and never completely. Someone at Microsoft thought it would be a good idea to make the desktop experience a twin of the tablet/phone experience. In what may go down as one of the most ergonomically boneheaded decisions of all time, Windows 8 traded historically steadfast backwards compatibility for the option to use your entire arm instead of a mouse, treating your 26-inch monitor as if it were a dirty window during spring cleaning.
3D printing support and something aesthetically reminiscent of a start button cannot save windows 8.x. Like Vista, it is slow, buggy, awkward and difficult – all reasons Microsoft punted Vista and went back to basics with Windows 7, to universal acceptance and applause. If history is any indicator, Windows will not be fixed until Microsoft recognizes the magnitude of their mistake and releases a sleeker, entirely new major version (in this case, Windows 9).
If Windows 9 turns out to be the same kind of course correction Windows 7 was and Microsoft hasn't been utterly abandoned by their hardware partners, all will be forgiven and advances in support for 3D printing will be fully appreciated, because the haze of bloat will have cleared. Someday, tech historians might look back on this event as being more significant to 3D printing than the day Staples announced they were selling the Cube.
Author's note: Certain industry programmer friends of 3D Printer World inform me that driver creators using the new SDK may be required to implement rendering filter features themselves, including model correction. This would be no easy task for the average software author.