Open Standards, Goggle Snobbery, and the Browser Wars

I remember the moment the so-called Browser Wars redefined everything we were doing on the web. It was the Twentieth Century. The web, and browsers, were the most amazing things ever. We didn’t give a darn about “open standards”, and we were creating these awesome Java Applets that could connect to a server, and provide multi-user interaction on the web. Then one day, one of my co-workers came into my office, looking like he’d just been hit by a bus.

“Microsoft has just released its new Java.” he told me.

“Cool.” I said, chewing my bubblegum and turning my attention back to the emacs window on my computer.

“No, it’s not cool.” he retorted. “It’s their OWN version of Java. Real Java won’t work in IE any more.”

I pulled away from my emacs. I could see the future collapsing around us. All our dreams of creating interactive applications for the open web suddenly seemed impossible. We’d either be creating and maintaining more than one version of our software, or excluding users of software that didn’t meet the standards of what we were doing.

Having devolved from “Write once, run everywhere” (Sun’s Java motto at the time) to “Write once, test everywhere” (The witty retort to Sun’s sunny motto), we now found ourselves without even “Write once” to lean on as a business case for everything we were doing.

And it was all downhill from there. Way downhill. Read a little about the Browser Wars here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Browser_wars

Browser Wars
Browser Wars Graphic from Wikipedia. Click to Enlarge.

How downhill from there was it? Well, look at what happened to IE and Netscape. Like two nations that went to war, for no good reason other than to dominate the world, both fell into relative obscurity. One died, leaving only its descendants to return and try again. The other dwindled and lingered around the fringes, still used primarily by low-budget offices with stubborn IT support staff, or by geezers who liked “their Yahoo” just fine, and didn’t even know what a browser was, much less how to use a different one.

Well, there’s been some snobbery floating around in all this talk these days about VR Goggles. And it has served to remind me of what happens when companies try to secure a dominant spot in the market by creating systems that are available to the few.

Here’s a bizarre article from Newsweek about Goggle manufacturers proudly excluding vast swaths of users because they don’t have the right set-up:

http://www.newsweek.com/apple-computers-not-good-enough-virtual-reality-433294

“When asked if there would ever be Mac support for the Rift, Palmer responds by saying “That is up to Apple. If they ever release a good computer, we will do it. It just boils down to the fact that Apple doesn’t prioritize high-end GPUs. You can buy a $6,000 Mac Pro with the top of the line AMD FirePro D700, and it still doesn’t match our recommended specs. So if they prioritize higher-end GPUs like they used to for a while back in the day, we’d love to support Mac. But right now, there’s just not a single machine out there that supports it.”

Thankfully, this is just a hardware-on-hardware dilemma. Content creators will have a choice. Create hardware-challenging content that requires state-of-the-art everything – or, create content using “open standards” and let the hardware – whatever hardware – handle it to the best of its ability.

Open Standards for Virtual Reality

Luckily, there is a lot going on in terms of “open standards” on the web – and even for VR on the web. We didn’t have that in the Twentieth Century – we hadn’t been stung yet. We weren’t once bitten, twice shy. Even once we were once-bitten, twice-shy, we seemed to think that something like Flash would work out better in the long run. We’ve since learned that even if something proprietary SEEMS to work everywhere – as time marches on, market dominance, in the face of changing platforms, leads to a complete collapse of viability.

Having had enough of this nonsense, the web world moved on to open standards. The hero of this movement is a little something called HTML5.

(See also my post HTML5, the 3D Web, and the Death of Plugins.)

Now that we have HTML5, we don’t really “do” Flash. Or Java applets. Anything we used to do using those technologies, we now do with HTML5. Of course, there are things beyond HTML5 that we use – JavaScript being one obvious example – we can do all the stuff we used to need Flash and Java for, without using any technologies or codes that are under the control of any business that may want to leverage that technology to achieve market dominance. And with that, comes no plugins.

(See also my post Java Applets, 3D and the Demise of Plugins.)

As far as Virtual Reality, or even just your basic Virtual Worlds, we have any number of opportunities to “stick with HTML5” the way we can for videos, rotating banners, interactivity, and other multi-media content.

X3D – three.js – X3DOM – WebVR – WebGL – these and more serve as basic ingredients to deploying 3D content, virtual worlds, and ultimately virtual reality, on the open web. None of these technologies care if you have a PC or a Mac. They don’t care if you have Firefox or Chrome. They don’t care if you’re using a virtual peek-hole in a flat monitor, or the highest-priced VR goggles money can buy.

I’m sure there will be plenty of “Virtual Reality” content that will be restricted to the users of certain types of hardware or software. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – in fact, to achieve the type of “immersive” experiences that consumers will expect, that’s likely where they’re going to have to start.

But look at something like YouTube. At one time, the idea that you could watch hi-def video on any web-enabled device was a bit of a pipe dream. But YouTube positioned themselves to make video available as widely as possible, and now you can do exactly that. And where YouTube was once heavily Flash-driven, it now mostly deploys video, in your web-enabled devices, using open-standard-based technologies.

Where I’m going with this is uncertain. Where the world will go with this is uncertain. But at least we’ve all seen what happens when you depend on proprietary technology to get your content, interactive or otherwise, to the world. And because we’ve seen, and don’t want to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, we’ve come up with open standards.

As a final remark, I’d like to refer you to an organization called the Web3D Consortium.

This is their paragraph to introduce themselves to first-time visitors: “Founded in 1997, we are an International, non-profit, member-funded, industry standards development organization. We develop and maintain royalty-free ISO standards for web-based 3D graphics. Our standard   X3D (Extensible 3D) originated from VRML and is available in XML, Compressed Binary, and classic VRML formats. X3D is open, royalty free, extensible, interoperable, and runs on all platforms including desktops, tablets, and phones. Our members are from business, academia, government and the military.

Check them out at http://www.web3d.org/.

We’ll never be able to stop content creators from using technology like Flash – and we’ll never be able to stop goggle manufacturers from making stuff that only works on certain platforms. Some “education software” companies still use Flash, for economic efficiency reasons. Some goggle manufacturers want their gear so impressive, that it will exclude platforms, for economic efficiency reasons.

But thankfully, work is being done to bring 3D content and virtual reality to the whole world, unsiloed, on the open web.

Google are no fool. They bought YouTube, and now it is a part of their open-web empire. And far, far from the attitude of certain goggle manufacturers, they have introduced us to a VR technology that works with a darn smart-phone, and looks like this:

google-cardboard
Google Cardboard – Passive VR on the cheap.

I am of the belief that “market dominance” will come to companies that strive to get VR into the hands of everyone. Not necessarily those companies that create the maximal impression on a scaled-back, if elite, audience.

And at the end of the day, what Oculus is saying is not that they won’t bother with VR goggles that work on a Mac – they do want to get the technology into everyone’s hands. They just want Apple to make a good computer first.

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Author: Pete

Editor-in-Chief, Lead Software Developer and Artistic Director @ 3dspace.com

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