Open source multimedia gets boost from Microsoft

Perhaps it was an unintended side effect of the browser wars, but Microsoft is now supporting WebGL.

By Kathleen Maher

The browser wars have taken a new direction this summer. The increasing importance of mobile and the popularity of gaming on mobile platforms are encouraging the use of new technology. This year we’re seeing the emergence of WebRTC and the strengthening of WebGL. Ironically, WebGL is getting its big push from none other than Microsoft.

The next version of Microsoft Internet Explorer will be touch-optimized, in keeping with all things Windows 8. The push into mobile and touch has caused Microsoft to rethink its past aloof behavior toward WebGL. (Source: Microsoft)
The next version of Microsoft Internet Explorer will be touch-optimized, in keeping with all things Windows 8. The push into mobile and touch has caused Microsoft to rethink its past aloof behavior toward WebGL. (Source: Microsoft)

The RTC in WebRTC stands for real time communication for voice, video, and peer-to-peer file sharing. The latest release from Mozilla, Firefox 22 includes support for WebRTC as well as an improved implementation of WebGL. Mozilla says its WebGL implementation will enable 3D multiplayer gaming in the browser. Mozilla announced partnerships with Ericsson for WebRTC and the companies highlighted video telephony applications. The partnership was first unveiled at the Mobile World Congress held earlier in 2013 in Barcelona.

WebRTC is a Google technology development effort. It was introduced Spring 2011 and it is being shepherded in the web world as a standard by the W3D, the World Wide Web Consortium.

Microsoft adopts SPDY and WebGL

The 3D community is very excited about the news that came out of Microsoft Build in June this year. After a couple of years of stonewalling WebGL, Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer II would support WebGL. The company also announced support for SPDY, a web protocol developed by Google to speed up online performance. Microsoft had also tried to go around SPDY with its own approach, Speed + Mobility. Both approaches reduced web page load latency.

SPDY takes advantage of compression, multiplexing, and prioritization. SPDY is also supported by Mozilla Firefox and Opera.

At its introduction, in March 2011, WebGL was hailed as the enabling technology for 3D online. As such it followed on a line of disappointments which included VRML, X3D, and 3D Flash but these implementations relied on plug-ins for the browsers adding an unwanted layer of overhead. Almost immediately though, Microsoft came through with a discouraging word. Microsoft questioned the security of WebGL, citing a possible security flaw inherent in WebGL published by Context Information Security. The London research firm claimed because WebGL provided access to the GPU, it was opening up new access to the user’s hardware providing back door access to Internet connected machines. The Khronos Group, parents of WebGL, answered with an extension for the API designed to mitigate the problem and the browsers implemented their own safeguards.

At the time, there was a teensy bit of cynicism about Microsoft’s motives, but the strategy—if indeed it was a strategy—was effective: adoption of WebGL has been slow. It’s also worth noting the oft-forgotten rule of forecasting: nothing ever happens as fast as you think it will (but it always comes sooner than you expect.) It may well be that WebGL is seeing a normal, albeit cautious adoption rate among web developers, many of whom may not see 3D as necessary for their site.

We’ll see. At Build 2013, Microsoft signaled that it’s all in and many believe that IE support is the missing piece of the puzzle for 3D on the web. Now that Microsoft is supporting WebGL, the technology has support in all major browsers. Microsoft is now declaring WebGL “safe” thanks to the work it has done. As part of its announcement of support for WebGL Microsoft’s Internet Explorer corporate vice president Dean Hachamovitch, says “IE11 scans for unsafe WebGL content and implements a software-based renderer to complement the GPU. With Windows, graphics subsystem failures are not fatal, and WebGL continues to run. With IE11, your 3D experiences can access device orientation to create new interaction opportunities for immersive Web content.”

As part of its announcement, Microsoft highlighted its collaborative relationship with Epic to bring the Unreal Engine 3 to JavaScript to make use of WebGL.

Games are an obvious opportunity for browsers and 3D technology, but 3D maps are also a hot opportunity. Google has been way ahead on this front, but at Build this year, the VP for Bing technology, Gurdeep Singh Pall showed off Microsoft’s latest take on 3D maps. Microsoft has been going its own way for 3D online including Virtual Earth 3D and as a Silverlight technology, but both are plug-in approaches. Microsoft abandoned Silverlight in favor of standard-based approaches some time ago, but it was clear which standards it would actually adopt. It was not until this year’s Microsoft Build conference that the company officially committed to WebGL. As Microsoft catches up with 3D technology in the browser, it’s also likely we’ll see Photosynth get GPU acceleration courtesy of WebGL.

More than the sum of its parts

Google is a strong force behind the web APIs and WebGL is hardly the least of its efforts. Most recently Google introduced Cube Slam, a browser embedded pong game that can be played against the computer or against a trash talking friend in the browser. It’s a demonstration of WebRTC, Web Audio, and WebGL. Suddenly, even the least imaginative of us can see a day when video conferencing comes free in a browser. The Cube Slam implementation includes a window playing a live video and audio stream of your pong opponent. The game is kept in sync using the RTCPeerConnection and RTCDataChannel components.

WebGL, SPDY, WebRTC, they’re all components that are coming together to enable a more powerful web and one that can accommodate the fantasies of software companies aiming towards a cloud-based workflow.

It may not be as fun as games, or even 3D maps, but there’s great potential for collaboration with 3D models and visualization and as these technologies are made freely available, they are fostering new experimentation among users.

Our take

So far, Microsoft has not fallen in line for WebRTC, and possibly, the company’s Skype technology represents the company’s hoped for technology edge on this front. Doesn’t much matter this time around. No one is going to wait for Microsoft on this and Microsoft’s adoption of WebGL is an indication that the company has had a bit of a revelation on the value of open source technologies.

What we’re seeing from all this is that Microsoft is recognizing the advantage of supporting open source technologies for its browser. Explorer has fallen behind Chrome and running close to Firefox. There is a wealth of data on the market share of the various browsers and they consistently put Internet Explorer on the decline.

According to Statcounter Microsoft has seen a steady decline in the use of Internet Explorer compared to Google’ Chrome.
According to Statcounter Microsoft has seen a steady decline in the use of Internet Explorer compared to Google’ Chrome.

And Microsoft usual strategy of building its own technology to compete with more open options suffered a major setback with the relative lack of interest shown to its Flash competitor Silverlight. As a matter of fact, Adobe was early to make the concession to HTML 5 and web technologies as a practical approach to interactive content for browsers.

Increasingly people are interacting with games, content, TV, information, and tools through the browser and not on their desktop.