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Can't touch this! Microsoft joins OpenGL 3D graphics group

Love of WebGL after 14 years an outsider

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Microsoft has quietly joined an industry party building 3D interactive graphics boosted by graphics chips, after 14 years spent in opposition.

The software giant has left jaws swinging with a decision to join the Khronos Group and knuckle down immediately as member of the WebGL working group.

There was no official announcement, just a simple tweet on Sunday from Khronos president and NVIDIA developer ecosystem vice president Neil Trevett.

Tweeting from the Web3D 2014 conference in Vancouver, Trevett wrote:

Trevett confirmed on email to The Register on Monday Microsoft had joined the group. Microsoft was unable to comment at time of writing.

Frank Oliver is an Internet Explorer senior program manager. Also attending Web3D 2014 were Oliver’s colleagues David Catuhe and Ben Constable.

Reaction on Twitter was swift and not unsurprisingly shocked. JSON Statham wrote:

Web dev Rob Belics added:

Khronos is a cross-industry group spanning chip and device makers, PC firms and manufacturers of software and consumer electronics.

Members of many years' standing include Apple, Google and Mozilla – all the major browser makers – ARM, Intel, IBM, Fujitsu, Sony and the former Nokia.

In fact, the only name of note absent from this list had been Microsoft - now added.

Why? Khronos is best known for its work on OpenGL, an open set of APIs built to render 2D and 3D graphics on computers, which is available minus royalty.

OpenGL is cross-language and multi-platform used by everything from CAD to browsers. It is based on technology developed by SGI that was released in 1991. Khronos was founded in 2000 by SGI along with Sun Microsystems, NVIDIA, Intel and a group of media companies. The idea was to promote open standard APIs to write and play media on different devices and platforms.

Microsoft, rather predictably, pushed its own media APIs “optimised” for Windows. Unleashed in 1995, DirectX dominates Windows and now Xbox.

Since 2011, Khronos has been working on WebGL with Firefox-shop Mozilla – a group that had its own WebGL implementation in 2007.

WebGL is an API for rendering 2D and 3D JavaScript interactive graphics in a browser without pesky plug ins. It’s based on OpenGL and HTML5 Canvas.

Until this weekend, Microsoft had abstained not just from Khronos but has not participated in the development of OpenGL too - expressing “security concerns” on the latter. DirectX is used in all Windows devices and Xbox so it has been of major strategic importance to Microsoft. Also, it has a considerable install base.

Microsoft has, though, warmed to WebGL with its latest browser – Internet Explorer 11 – coming with built-in support.

But as Reg regular Tim Anderson noted here, WebGL in IE11 was far from ideal – with Google’s Chrome browser able to beat IE at its own game on a test site.

Getting hardware acceleration right is essential for browser makers as computing goes mobile and for anybody not buying into native apps.

More so for Microsoft, as it has put IE on tablets and on its Windows phones.

Until IE 11, Microsoft was the only browser maker not supporting WebGL – Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome and Mozilla did.

That’s a problem on mobile, where Redmond’s up against Firefox OS for smartphones handsets, written in HTML5 CSS, JavaScript and C++ with a Linux kernel. It's also competing against Chrome for Android and Firefox for Android, both of which support WebGL.

This is a two-front war, through, and it's not just mobile that's a risk. Google is encroaching on IE’s traditional but waning desktop dominance, too, by pushing Chrome.

In 2010, Google developers started the Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine (ANGLE), to make WebGL work on Direct3D – the graphics component of Direct X – rather than on OpenGL. Making Chrome's implementation of WebGL work with Direct X clearly is an advantage if, like Google, you’re a browser maker trying to drain further market share from Microsoft’s IE.®

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