Sony Corp looks set to emerge as the most likely buyer for Silicon Graphics Inc’s Cosmo 3D graphics unit, which was put on the block back in April as part of SGI’s major restructuring (CI No 3,389). Once the internet’s killer app, Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) never quite delivered on its early promise. The […]
Sony Corp looks set to emerge as the most likely buyer for Silicon Graphics Inc’s Cosmo 3D graphics unit, which was put on the block back in April as part of SGI’s major restructuring (CI No 3,389). Once the internet’s killer app, Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) never quite delivered on its early promise. The first VRML worlds were awkwardly modeled and painfully slow. But as PC power and bandwidth increase, the technology has become more acceptable to mainstream users and has found serious business applications. Now big players are licensing VRML and buying out the companies that pioneered the standard. In particular, Silicon Graphics was the source of the original Open Inventor product which became VRML 1.0. After much politicking, some of it bitter, the company succeeded in having its Moving Worlds proposal adopted as VRML 2.0. But SGI didn’t give its software away out of altruism. It wanted to make money off its insider expertise in VRML, and the Cosmo Software division was its vehicle for doing so. How the mighty are fallen. After taking a savage beating over its acquisition of Cray Research Inc, a chastened SGI decided to get out of the applications business. In Sony Corp, the embattled company may have finally found a buyer for Cosmo. Both SGI and Sony confirm that a letter of intent has been signed. It’s still early, though, with hundreds of details to be hammered out before the sale can go ahead. Speculation centers on what SGI might consider a fair price for the division and some or all of its people. The Wall Street Journal is guessing $10m to $20m. One who won’t be making the transition is Cosmo president Kai-Fu Lee, who says he hasn’t taken a vacation in years and needs two or three months off. Nevertheless Lee, who was instrumental in the getting the letter of intent signed, insists that there will be few or no firings as a result of the acquisition. He says that only those companies willing to swallow the division whole or nearly whole were considered as potential buyers. There are certainly plenty of people with the money to fund a hundred person company, so it wasn’t about money, he says. Instead, he says, priority was given to those potential buyers likely to fulfill SGI’s original plans for the company. What Cosmo has always been about is making software than can transform and improve the internet interface, whether that is on PCs or TVs, he says. That convergence angle makes Sony an intriguing choice. The company already manufactures devices for Microsoft Corp acquisition WebTV Networks Inc. After apparently falling out with Apple Computer Corp over consumer appliance development (by coincidence, Apple also managed to quarrel with most members of the VRML consortium), Sony cemented its Microsoft allegiance with an agreement to manufacture more set-top boxes, this time running Windows CE (CI No 3,435). Sony could be planning to incorporate Cosmo’s VRML browser into its Windows-based set-top box business – except that Microsoft already uses rival VRML technology from InterVista Software Inc. The plot thickens. InterVista, founded by co-creator of VRML Tony Parisi, won an early and significant victory when Microsoft agreed to ship InterVista’s RealWorld VRML browser with Internet Explorer 4.0. Parisi, with Mark Pesce, was one of those who fought to prevent the VRML standard from fragmenting into a mosaic of proprietary specs when SGI, Microsoft and Apple were pulling in different directions. Unlike its more frivolous rivals, Parisi’s InterVista concentrated on visualization of business data, with the result that it has just been acquired by visualization specialist Platinum Technology Inc. Platinum announced yesterday that InterVista’s WorldView 2.0 viewer will ship with Windows 98 – another milestone in the mainstreaming of VRML. So Sony plans to buy one VRML viewer while key customer Microsoft is continuing its close ties with another. Complicating things still further, Computer Associates is to bundle Sense8’s RealWorld Interface, a non-VRML Web-based fly-through management tool, with NT 5.0 (CI No 3,398). As far as content producers are concerned, three 3D interfaces adds up to one unholy mess. The Wall Street Journal suggests that Sony could relegate Cosmo to its games platforms, out of the way of the Redmond giant. That would certainly simplify the VRML world but not, perhaps, in the way the original founders intended.