What killed Microsoft's Chromeffects Internet technology? Did it commit suicide as a revenge on Intel? Or was it the victim of its own greedy hardware demands? Were mildmannered Web developers responsible?
Chromeffects was intended to enable users to view rich interactive multimedia content over the Internet by embedding calls to the Windows DirectX API into Web pages. Though heralded as a killer application at its debut earlier this year, and scheduled for release late this year, the technology has now officially been indefinitely postponed.
Microsoft first demonstrated Chromeffects in March at its Winhec conference.
Not coincidentally, this first demo was for an audience of PC manufacturers, who have most to gain from the technology's success. PC makers, hurt by the trend towards lower priced machines, have been in search of a killer application that would revive their fortunes by making consumers and business users shell out once again for top of the line systems. Many believed Chromeffects could prove to be that application.
However, there were problems from the start. Microsoft came under fire for using proprietary protocols in the product, in a move many saw as a deliberate attempt to lock Net users into its own software.
"I see (Chromeffects) as another attempt by Microsoft to circumvent yet another standard, in this case VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language)," said Dan Shafer, a member of the steering committee of the recently-formed Web Standards Project (Wasp). "I'm infuriated that (Microsoft hasn't) supported VRML, hasn't even paid lip service to it. And now (the company) has gone out to develop its own technology."
The practical problems of persuading developers and users to embrace the project, tied as it was to Microsoft products, may have taken their toll. George Olsen, a Web designer at 2-Lane Media and project leader with the Web Standards Project, noted that Web designers are generally loath to develop content that can only be seen on one platform - a Windows 98 PC running Internet Explorer.
"Traditionally, for developers, our baseline is last year's PC or even the PC of two years ago, unless your content is sexy enough that it sends people out to buy new hardware," he added.
Rob Enderle, analyst at Giga Information Group, suggested that Microsoft might be getting even with Intel over its stance during the ongoing antitrust trial against the software giant.
"Killing a product a quarter before it was to be released is almost unprecedented and the only company that is really hurt by this move is Intel," he explained.
"The timing is too much of a coincidence. I can't come up with any other reason why (Microsoft) would kill this product so late in the game. I certainly see Intel responding."
Chromeffects placed high demands on hardware, needing to run on a PC with 64Mb of RAM, an Advanced Graphics Port (AGP) card and at least a 300MHz processor. Intel would have been the main beneficiary of such power-hungry technology.
Officially, Microsoft blamed negative user feedback for the shelving of Chromeffects. A Microsoft spokeswoman said: "Microsoft has decided to take a step backwards and take a look at the needs of the customers and of the development community."
Tellingly, she added that the company has had a change of heart. Microsoft now intends to make Chromeffects comply with Internet standards such as the Document Object Model (DOM) and the proposed HTML+TIME (Timed Interactive Multimedia Extensions for HTML) standard for multimedia on the Web.
Microsoft's decision to shelve Chromeffects is all the more embarrassing because the firm suggested in September that it would move the release forward from the first quarter of 1999 to Christmas 1998 to hit the shopping season.
The Microsoft spokeswoman maintained that the Chromeffects project remains alive, however, and would become a feature of a future Windows release.
She would not commit to a shipping date.
The technology will not be included in Windows 2000 Professional (previously known as NT 5), which is expected to ship some time in 1999. This pushes the release date of Chromeffects to beyond the year 2000. It seems certain that parts of the technology, at least, will be resurrected, but perhaps in a very different form to the original intent.
What is Chromeffects?
Chromeffects is a technology for rendering 2D and 3D audio and video.
Interactive gaming is an obvious beneficiary of the technology but business applications, such as data visualisation and distance learning, have also been touted as possible areas where Chromeffects could shine.
Chromeffects works by combining the Web standard XML (Extensible Mark-up Language) with Microsoft's proprietary DirectX 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 needs to be passed over the Internet, saving bandwidth.
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