Is Chromeffects Microsoft's VRML-killer? After weeks of prodding (CI No 3,488; 3492) ComputerWire finally elicited a response from Chris Phillips, director of business development and multimedia for the Redmond software giant. And we mean giant: just this week MSFT overtook GE in terms of market capitalization. Anyway, here's Phillips (at last) responding to the widespread rumors of shortcomings in Chromeffects' 3D engine (CI No 3,488): We try and stress that 3D is just another media type. We're using a page metaphor, which means that you have to be able to integrate media types into a 2D metaphor. But, wait a minute: does that mean Chromeffects is not the VRML- killer? We're definitely not targeted at the same market as VRML, Phillips says. But then he hedges his bets: It depends on the application. If someone comes to me and says they're going to do a 3D immersive world I usually suggest they use VRML. On the other hand, I can do most of the same things as VRML. Then there are the things I can do that VRML cannot do. Phillips' major criticism of VRML is that it has: no integration with HTML. When the VRML guys built VRML - and I'm not criticizing them, we were part of it - it was all about 3D. They didn't work with the World Wide Web Consortium. They didn't even think about it. They were too busy getting the 3D to work. Now, Phillips says, the 3D works but VRML is a locked spec. There's really no way to integrate and extend it, except through the EAI, which pretty much everyone admits is broken. What that means, according to Phillips, is that VRML is too hard. By contrast, Chromeffects is based on 56 multimedia XML tags. We put it in the 'franca lingua' that developers use, Phillips says. He maintains that building content in VRML requires that people be highly technical, estimating that there are maybe 50,000 people in the world capable of doing so. Microsoft had its sights on bigger game. We were trying to target the three to five million desktop publishers who have moved over to become web designers, he says. They grok HTML: it's the franca lingua they understand. Adapting to Chromeffects should be easy, or so the theory goes. So Chromeffects is simple and editable, just like HTML. Except that Chromeffects differs from the markup language that made the web in one important respect. There are no Chromeffects players for platforms other than Windows. Nor will there be, at least not from Microsoft itself. We'd like to make the tags public. Other people can implement them on other platforms, Phillips says. He simply doesn't see that as Microsoft's job. Just because something is proposed as a standard doesn't mean the company that provided it to the world has to do the work of porting it as a standard. My team only really has expertise in Windows. If I did to a port to someone else's platform I'd probably do a lousy job. To make Chrome work on another platform would take anyone considerable amount of work, Phillips admits. You'd have to go build your browsing technology, throw in some DHTML, support the 56 XML tags we've written, and then come up with something that can interpret that content. You'd have to build a bunch of multimedia services into the operating system. There are a lot of low-level OS services that you need. In other words, this way of doing 2D and 3D multimedia is pretty much tied to Microsoft's own operating system. And it demands a fast chip, good graphics accelerators and efficient drivers. So is Chromeffects any more than an Intel-friendly box-shifter? Of course it is, says Phillips. According to him, the $1000 you have to invest in new hardware to run Chromeffects is chump change, and the technology - weak 3D and all - was motivated by one pure force: Microsoft's innate urge to innovate. I guess we're the leader in this sort of multimedia, the really advanced stuff, he says.
By Rachel Chalmers
Not that the Redmond giant has given up on VRML exactly. Microsoft is still working with the VRML Consortium and has a seat on the board of directors. Microsoft also ships Platinum Technology's WorldView VRML browser with Internet Explorer and Windows 98, but Phillips won't give any guarantees that the partnership will continue. I don't think they know and we definitely don't know what the plans in the future are going to bring. It's the least requested add-on to Explorer. Every time we ship a new version of IE we always ask ourselves do we want to continue to do this? That Microsoft has lost faith in VRML is one of the industry's worst-kept secrets. We've spent millions of dollars trying to promote VRML as an internet technology, says Phillips. In retrospect, was the money wasted? Yes and no, he confesses, my management and the people here at Microsoft would probably argue that VRML has had serious commercial adoption problems. Where's the VRML content that people are kicking down doors to see? So where do we go from here? Phillips hails a movement within the VRML community towards componentization. Certain components of VRML 2 are really valuable, he says. Others, notably the EAI, are too difficult to implement and use successfully. A bunch of the nodes in VRML 2 are just not really useful. So Phillips wants to loot VRML for the good bits and throw away everything that doesn't enhance Windows as a platform. As he puts it: We'd love to take some of the VRML 2 stuff and drive it into Chromeffects as a file interchange format. He maintains that the benefits wouldn't all be flowing into Microsoft: The VRML guys love our HTML integration. This wouldn't have anything to do with recent moves to change the VRML Consortium's name to the 3D Web Consortium now, would it? Phillips claims: There's been a lot of people from the Consortium saying, 'Would you consider throwing Chromeffects in?' Microsoft would certainly consider doing so, he says. We'd like to take the tags we've done in Chromeffects and provide them to some standards body. That would be fine. But what we'd prefer to do is support a componentized version of VRML 2. Those are the discussions that we've been having lately. That's the stuff that we've been exploring. The future of both VRML and Chromeffects lies in the visualization of business data. On that much at least, Platinum and Microsoft agree. We both have the same vision, but I don't think any of us are really hung up on technology per se, Phillips says. That's not quite true; Platinum has invested heavily in VRML, and Microsoft wants to sell Chromeffects if only because Chromeffects will move its partners' hardware and its own OS. If Chromeffects wins, though, IT directors will have to demand that users, suppliers and/or customers use a specialized piece of hardware to access this content. Can that possibly wash in this internet age? No problem, says Phillips: I used to be a director of MIS for a big public company. If a vendor told me I had to buy a special black box, I would do that in a heartbeat. What about telling suppliers and customers they have to buy the black box too? If you're going business to business you can dictate that, Phillips asserts. I had certain suppliers who literally I had to hook up to their mainframes. It was all custom-done. I'm not saying that it's pretty, but I literally took certain kinds of very specialized PCs and gave them to all my customers or made them buy them. I'm not saying that the internet isn't a great thing, Phillips concludes. Standardization is a great thing. That's what this company is based on. But my team is one of the teams doing leading-edge innovation in multimedia and we had to make some trade-offs. One of the things they traded off was multi-platform support. A lot of other people believe that that's what makes the internet tick. Time will tell who's right. Phillips uses the word 'grok' a lot. He maintains that Microsoft groks VRML. Readers of Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land might remember the original meaning of the word grok. To grok someone in fullness, you have to eat them. Is this a clue to Microsoft's desire for a componentized VRML? Will Chromeffects be not only the VRML-killer but the technology that cannibalized the steaming corpse?