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Why 3D printing matters to Microsoft's Windows 8.1 strategy

A Microsoft representative explains the company's decision to support 3D printing in Windows 8.1, revealing a smart strategy in the process.

At the Inside 3D Printing conference in Chicago this week, Microsoft senior program manager Jesse McGatha provided a little context on the company’s June announcement that Windows 8.1 will support 3D printing. But while Microsoft says it wants to help eradicate the barriers to adoption for consumers, it’s really just setting itself up to capture the market if and when somebody else does.

RELATED: The year in 3D printing (so far)

Microsoft’s initial announcement in late June explained that Windows 8.1 will provide plug-and-play support for 3D printers, the ability to read different file formats, and support for third-party apps that manage the printers. But at the conference, McGatha answered one important remaining question: why is 3D printing important to Microsoft?

The answer is surprisingly simple. Although Microsoft acknowledges that 3D printing is still far from mainstream, McGatha says the vast majority - 70% - of the makers and researchers who are experimenting with 3D printing do so on Windows machines.

"It made sense to try to make this a commonplace thing," McGatha said at the conference.

In that pursuit, Microsoft, as well as the 3D printing industry at large, faces a difficult task.

McGatha outlined the outstanding challenges that Microsoft aims to resolve in order for 3D printing to catch on. These challenges ranged from the basic content needed to inform the public of the technology to the speed and quality of the printing process and products.

Unfortunately for the market, Windows 8.1 likely will not do much to draw consumers into 3D printing. Fortunately for Microsoft, support for 3D printing is a low-risk way to set up Windows 8.1 to reap the benefits if consumers end up moving into the market anyway.

McGatha gave a demo of a sample 3D printing app for Windows. Although the finished product will likely look different than what was shown at the conference, the demo did provide a glimpse into how Microsoft will accommodate 3D-printing users’ needs. The sample app was very intuitive, making the process look similar to that of printing a document in Microsoft Word. The user could send a file to a printer without leaving the app, was given the option to select a connected device on which to print, and displayed the user interface of the app that correlates with each specific device. Essentially, it was designed to dumb down the 3D printing process for the people who will hopefully be trying it out soon.

It’s a smart move for Microsoft, positioning it on the frontier of a technology with high potential in consumer markets. Last year, Wohlers Associates predicted that the 3D printing market will reach $3.1 billion in value by 2016. Then, in April, Gartner estimated that enterprise-class 3D printers will drop below $2,000 in price by 2016, presumably removing one of the largest obstacles standing in the way of mass adoption.

However, the Gartner analyst behind that report said in an April interview with Network World that lower prices for 3D printers will not necessarily mean widespread consumer adoption. While Windows 8.1 might facilitate the process of sending a design to a 3D printer, consumers will still need to learn how to use the CAD or 3D design software needed to create that design. That knowledge gap may prevent many consumers from ever using a 3D printer in the first place, Gartner research director Pete Basiliere said.

"Once you have that, now you still have to print it out, and depending upon the consumer's skill set, it could be a very difficult process of trial-and-error getting the printer to produce the part that they envisioned," Basiliere said. "Not that the printer is incapable, but there may be need for support structures and other elements in the design that, if the consumer isn't proficient with the software, it leads to a bad print."

But, for Microsoft, it doesn’t matter whether everyday consumers flock to 3D printing. Judging by the demonstration at the conference, Windows 8.1 will just provide a simple method through which well-versed 3D-printing users will print from their PCs. It doesn’t appear, at this point anyway, that Microsoft is going to help market and design 3D printers or design software for the masses. That involves risk, which will be incurred by the companies in the 3D printing market itself. Stratasys, for example, just bought MakerBot to help cultivate a larger consumer following in 3D printing. If that strategy works out, then Stratasys, MakerBot, and potentially even Microsoft will end up winning big. But if it fails, Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 sales probably won’t be affected, whereas Stratasys and MakerBot will take the hit.

McGatha did mention 3D scanning capabilities for Kinect for PC, the SDK for which will be available to select developers this November (Microsoft is accepting applications now until the end of July). This, theoretically, could make 3D printing easier for consumers – if users can scan an object and use that file to print a replica, then they don’t necessarily need to learn CAD or 3D design software. But that leaves the user limited to simply making replicas of household items. 3D scanning on Kinect for PC may spark enough interest to drive more consumers to learn how to design 3D objects when they realize the technology’s potential. But, for most users, it will likely be a novelty in regards to 3D printing.

Microsoft’s 3D printing play is pretty simple: capitalize on the buzz by announcing support for the technology just as it starts getting attention from mainstream media, and get out in front of its competitors in the event that the buzz ends up being warranted. If it doesn’t, then the 3D printing capability is just another Windows feature that goes unused.

Ironically enough, "hype" was one of the nine key problems with 3D printing that McGatha discussed, when in reality hype is exactly what Microsoft is trying to perpetuate.

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