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Plugging-Into Disruptive Technology

December 12, 2011

Always have a solid platform beneath you.

Apps have changed the face of software design. You knew this already. If you’re in line with my current blog-reading demographic, you carry a smart phone and you’ve spent a few bucks buying your favorite apps. I love the app that tracks the bus coming toward me while I’m standing at my nearest bus stop, and the one that plots my best bike route between here and there.

As a software developer and architectural designer, I am also fascinated by the technological disruption initiated by the app world. The open source and commercial communities are accidentally colluding to lead us away from monolithic software systems and into a universe of platforms and user/developer groups extending those platforms. It is a response right out of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, and exactly the kind of creative environment described in Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.

We see the same kind of change happening in the architectural CAD software community as well. Rhino’s open source approach to developing the next release of their 3d modeling product has enabled them to tap an enormous community of designers and developers, resulting in a wealth of creativity, and extensions that no one company or entrepreneur could possibly develop on its own. This is a win-win for both the company and the external talent. The company gains visibility, establishes a larger pool of committed users, and fosters new applications, while at the same time accessing an active and technically proficient set of beta testers who can look into every corner of the base tool’s capabilities. The users gain because the platform enables their creative ideas while relieving the overhead of developing a geometry system below it.  As a developer, I appreciate the quality of the commercially developed platform, which supports the experimentation necessary for developing add-ons. I can be creative about the things I know, debugging my own code rather than debugging and rewriting the work of others.

Rhino’s development model is beginning to percolate throughout the architectural CAD community at large. Autodesk now touts their “open APIs;” attracting plugin developer technology is becoming the norm, and is clearly perceived as key to their continued success. And this approach is not limited to modeling tools. M-SIX, a quiet little startup here in Portland, Oregon, is using the same open interface model to provide a suite of cloud-based capabilities for large scale BIM collaboration and project management, enabling a much higher platform to stand on, and one tailored to the computational needs of architectural design.

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