Proponents are saying it may well revolutionise personal computing. Detractors call it just another attempt by Microsoft to sneak proprietary technology onto the Internet. Chromeffects creates stunning 3D effects on the Web ? but is there more to the technology than meets the eye?
Chromeffects is a technology for rendering 2D, 3D, audio and video. It will be preinstalled on top end PCs from major manufacturers in the next few months. While some of the first applications are expected to be in the space of interactive gaming, some analysts are already predicting a bright future for the technology in business applications such as data visualisation and distance learning.
Chromeffects works by combining the Web standard XML (Extensible Mark-up Language) with Microsoft?s proprietary DirectX application programming interface (API). By embedding calls to DirectX into an XML document, Web developers can create advanced effects on the Internet that are rendered locally on the end user?s machine. The local rendering means that less information must be passed over the Internet, saving bandwidth.
Microsoft first demonstrated Chromeffects in March at its Winhec conference. Not coincidentally, this first demo was for an audience of PC manufacturers ? the party that has most to gain from the technology?s success. PC makers, hurt by the trend towards lower priced machines, have been in search of the 'killer application' that would make consumers ? and business users ? shell out once again for top of the line systems.
According to many, Chromeffects is that application.
While originally planned for a 1999 release, Microsoft has moved up the delivery schedule to be in time for the Christmas PC buying season.
Chromeffects has a somewhat unusual history. The technology was not developed by Microsoft?s Internet Explorer group but came out of the multimedia division.
This unit had developed the DirectX API, which was oriented mainly towards games developers. DirectX eases their work by allowing them to write to a single API layer, rather than having to access all different types of multimedia hardware (such as sound and 3D cards) directly.
?But you still had to be a C++ programmer to use DirectX," said Leslie Evans, product manager multimedia at Microsoft. ?We wanted to open it up to non-programmers, such as Web developers.?
Microsoft is working on an authoring tool that will allow Web developers to create 3D effects using a drag and drop interface. The tool is expected to be released by the end of the year.
But up to now, few Web developers have openly embraced the concept. Meanwhile, Chromeffects has met with increasing criticism from multiple sources.
Chromeffects was immediately bashed by many commentators for its extraordinary hardware demands. Originally, Microsoft had said that a 350MHz processor, 64Mbytes of Ram and an Advanced Graphics Port 3D card would be required to view Chromeffects Web pages. Now, the company claims it has been able to reduce the required clock speed to 300MHz ? still far removed from the average desktop configuration.
Meanwhile, it now appears unlikely that existing PCs, even ones that match up to these specs, can be retrofitted with Chromeffects. The technology will be found only on new PCs that have it installed by the manufacturer, Microsoft is suggesting.
Despite suggestions in earlier reports, Microsoft will not let end users download Chromeffects and install it on their machines though OEMs may choose to let owners of selected models download.
Another, and possibly more serious, criticism of Chromeffects, has been the proprietary nature of the technology. Because it is based on exposing the DirectX API, Chromeffects is inherently a Windows only technology. Critics argues that much of the same functionality can be achieved by using VRML (Virtual Reality Mark-up Language), an ISO standard that is widely accepted and supported in all major Web browsers.
?I see [Chromeffects] as another attempt by Microsoft to circumvent yet another standard, in this case VRML," said Dan Shafer, a member of the steering committee of the recently formed Web Standards Project (Wasp). ?I?m infuriated that they haven?t supported VRML, they haven?t even paid lip service to it. And now they?ve gone out to develop their own technology."
?We see VRML as being a different technology,? Microsoft's Evans retorted. ?VRML was developed for the creation of virtual worlds. [And] Chromeffects is for all types of multimedia, not just 3D."
?The number of things that Chromeffects can do and VRML can?t is a very short list," maintained Ted Collins, vice president of the Internet division at Platinum Technology, which has made a heavy commitment to VRML (see news section). ?Chromeffects today is in fact a subset of VRML, with a couple of notable exceptions."
But Collins also said he welcomed Microsoft?s support for the use of 3D visualisation technology in the enterprise and on the Internet.
Platinum is positioning itself as the champion of VRML in the field of data visualisation in the enterprise. Last Wednesday, the company announced the acquisition of Cosmo Software, a VRML software company.
VRML has itself been something of a disappointment so far. Originally conceived in 1994, the technology remains relatively little used. Slow performance and relatively high bandwidth demand have limited its appeal, while the technology remains by most accounts highly complex and difficult to implement.
A certain disenchantment with VRML is apparent even among the standard?s supporters. The VRML Consortium, a group of more than 50 companies that includes Apple, IBM, Platinum but also Microsoft, recently decided to expand its charter. Rather than merely promote VRML, the organisation said it will now also look at other 3D technologies for the Web ? a clear nod towards Chromeffects.
?While the goal of the consortium should be to encourage cross-platform operation, the opposing force to that is pragmatism," said Neil Trevett, president of the VRML Consortium. ?I would hope that we would be able to engage a company like Microsoft, with a technology like Chromeffects, in a standards process."
A majority of Consortium members could conceivably vote to promote Chromeffects for certain applications, even though it is a Windows only solution, said Trevett. He added that Microsoft and the VRML Consortium are in talks about such a standards process.
But one Web developer, who preferred not to be named, suggested another reason why VRML has failed to break through so far. ?Most developers are Mac based, and there aren?t many Mac [VRML] tools around," he said. He pointed out that Chromeffects is likely to encounter the same problem.
There are some signs that he may be right. Earlier this month at Seybold San Francisco, a trade show for the publishing industry, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer used his keynote to hype the new technology. But the mainly Macintosh oriented Seybold crowd appeared largely unconvinced.
?As developers, we are very reluctant to use anything that only works on one platform, because you turn people away," said George Olsen, a Web designer with 2-Lane Media in Los Angeles and also a member of the Wasp steering committee. ?I think [Chromeffects] will face an uphill battle, due to the hardware requirements, and due to the fact that it?s not on the Mac.?
Olsen suggests a parallel with Dynamic HTML, or DHTML, which is a non standardised extension of HTML. DHTML is relatively rarely used by Web developers, because pages display very differently on different browsers, or even different versions of the same browser.
Kathy Carr, programme manager for Chromeffects at Microsoft, concedes that Microsoft is aware of this hesitance among Web designers. ?That?s obviously a consideration for us moving forward," she said. But she countered: ?It?s also an opportunity to differentiate your Web site."
At Seybold, Ballmer was asked after his keynote whether Microsoft would port Chromeffects to the Mac. He said Microsoft would consider this, based on demand. But Carr concedes that, even if the demand should exist, porting Chromeffects would be ?certainly not trivial?.
For one thing, Microsoft would first have to port its DirectX API to another processor and operating system, something the company has not yet committed to - and that may prove impractical.
Microsoft is promising to offer some tools that make it easier to create a double version of some 3D effects - Chromeffects capable clients will see a locally rendered, high resolution animation, while other clients will see a lower resolution animated GIF file, the most generally used type of animation on the Web.
But this does mean that Web pages must be designed to detect the user?s hardware and software, and that alternate versions of the same pages must be created and tested.
Even Microsoft concedes that Chromeffects Web content will be very slow to appear.
It has developed a Chromeffects section on its own microsoft.com site, and it is possible that some other sites (such as sidewalk.com) will pick up on the technology.
According to Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group, it will be up to PC manufacturers to come up with the first applications of Chromeffects, because they have most to gain from the technology. ?The rush is for OEMs to find something compelling with Chromeffects [for their high end customers] that does not alienate other users," he said.
PC manufacturers appear unwilling to discuss their plans with Chromeffects. A Dell spokersperson said the company is still evaluating the technology, and has not made a decision to support it. Compaq made a similar statement. Other manufacturers such as IBM and Gateway 2000 chose not to comment for this story.
Another category of early adopters will be Internet gaming sites, who are likely to use it for creating realistic, interactive 3D games.
But the technology will eventually find its way into the enterprise, primarily as an advanced data visualisation tool, some analysts predict.
?With Chromeffects you are going to be able to do things you can?t do in any other way," argued Enderle. ?It is very close to creating a real time, photorealistic experience, which I haven?t seen anywhere else, and at existing data rates."
Enderle expects that, if Chromeffects takes off in the consumer arena in 1999, the business market will follow about one year later.
Evans claims the ultimate goal of Chromeffects is no less than to enable ?the next generation of communication?. She said communication will become increasingly visual, with text based email and other documents being enriched or replaced by 2D and 2D visualisation.
Enderle, for one, would tend to agree. ?I?ve seen some things that this technology can do that really changed my idea of what a PC platform can be," he said.
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