Sibelius and user-led innovation


About a year ago I was approached by Dr. Steve Flowers from CENTRIM, the Centre for Research in Innovation Management at the University of Brighton. Steve runs some very interesting research about the relationship between the companies who make products and the users who use them in innovative ways. From the research abstract:

We see a dramatic shift towards more open, democratised, forms of innovation that are driven by users, not firms. The growth of such User-Centric Innovation has been most visible in a series of creative digital industries like music, the media and computer games, but is now growing rapidly in entirely novel areas like social networking and video sharing. User-Centric Innovation has had a significant direct impact on important UK industries (e.g. music), and its influence is rippling out across many other sectors. In key areas of the UK economy the innovation agenda is now being set by users, not firms, yet our understanding of this important source of innovation is weak and UK policy remains silent on this issue.

I was interviewed by Steve on a few occasions. The reason Sibelius is a good case study is because of the ManuScript programming language, which has been included in the program since its very first version. By the time we got to Sibelius 1.4, we had about two dozen plug-ins included in the program (and at the time, the best of them were written by a maths and comp. student from Oxford who would go on to join our development team after completing his degree, and remains one of the team to this day). Now, in Sibelius 5.2.5, we’re shipping around 120 plug-ins (having added a couple of dozen plug-ins per upgrade), nearly all of which have been written by individuals and submitted to us “on spec” for inclusion with the product, and there are nearly 200 further plug-ins available for download from the Sibelius web site.

However, it was only really in Sibelius 4 that ManuScript got powerul enough to do more sophisticated things, and indeed only in Sibelius 5 were we able to do the work that made ManuScript plug-ins fully undoable inside the program. We wouldn’t have spent the development time on making ManuScript more capable and making plug-ins full citizens in the application if not for the encouragement of the plug-in development community, who asked us to add more features to ManuScript so that they could produce better plug-ins. This becomes a kind of virtuous circle, and end users are the beneficiaries.

Some people would contend that ManuScript still doesn’t go far enough, and that it’s inherently limited in comparison to the kind of C-based API that is available for Finale. But to compare the two environments is like comparing apples and oranges. Obviously I can’t speak for the original intentions of the people who designed Finale, but ManuScript was intended to make it possible for non-programmers to automate tedious things within Sibelius. The barrier to entry for developing a plug-in in Sibelius is considerably lower, therefore, than for developing a Finale plug-in. (However, over the years it has been proven that you do have to have some programming skills to write a Sibelius plug-in, so we misjudged the “non-programmer” part!)

ManuScript is also not designed to stretch the capabilities of the core program, which is something that typically Finale plug-in developers set out to do, probably more out of necessity than desire — to wit, the fact that many of the plug-ins included with Finale perform basic notation tasks that are built in to Sibelius, e.g. tremolos, system separators (score dividers in Finale-speak), etc. And, interestingly, a few versions ago Finale began shipping with a plug-in that implemented a scripting language similar in conception to ManuScript, called FinaleScript. You know what they say about imitation…

Anyway, getting the opportunity to think about the relationship between Sibelius and the plug-in development community was fascinating, and we’re hoping to do some more work with Steve and his team in the future. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to personally attend the launch event in July, but Sibelius was represented there by my colleague Justin Baron. Some kind soul even blogged the event.

The final NESTA report is called The New Inventors: How users are changing the rules of innovation, and you can read it here.

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