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Google building 3D into Native Client

NaCl started out as a mechanism for faster processing for Web applications. Now it's getting accelerated graphics abilities, too.

Google is expanding the abilities of its Native Client technology for accelerated Web applications so it will encompass a newer and increasingly important frontier of computing: graphics.

Native Client, available as a plug-in and being built directly into Google's Chrome browser, got its start as a way to run software modules for x86 chips such as Intel's Core or AMD's Athlon. The difference over conventional software is that Native Client (NaCl) modules are downloaded over the Net but for security reasons run in a restrictive sandbox and with certain instructions prohibited. Google's vision is to marry the cloud-computing concept with local computing performance.

Since Native Client's 2008 debut, NaCl has been expanded, first with the ability to run on ARM and 64-bit x86 chips and second through the introduction of a design called PNaCl intended to shield programmers from the particulars of different processors.

The next change in the works is building hardware-accelerated graphics support into Native Client. In recent years, graphics chips have moved from a higher-end option to a mainstream component that operating systems rely on. Even high-end mobile phones have graphics hardware these days.

Native Client project leader Brad Chen mentioned the move Monday in an e-mail discussion. "The production version of Native Client in Chrome will support OpenGL ES 2.0," Chen said.

OpenGL is a standard interface that lets programmers tap into accelerated graphics, in particular 3D graphics, and the "ES" version is designed to encompass embedded computing systems such as mobile phones, game consoles, vehicles, and other machines that might not have the full power of a personal computer.

On desktop machines, where Windows dominates, OpenGL plays second fiddle to Microsoft's DirectX technology, including Direct3D. But OpenGL is used on Linux and Mac OS X, and OpenGL ES 2.0 is built into Android 2.x and Apple's iPhone 3GS.

OpenGL ES 2.0 also is the foundation for the features of another Web-based 3D technology Google supports, WebGL.

Google largely controls Chrome and NaCl, though they're both open-source software and the company has aspirations to make a standard out of the latter. Despite that control, the NaCl plan is somewhat contingent on a wider effort, the browser plug-in interface called NPAPI (Netscape Plug-in Application Programming Interface). Google, Mozilla, and Adobe Systems--maker of the most widely used plug-in, Flash Player--are backing the "Pepper" project to update NPAPI.

NaCl requires the updated plug-in interface to work outside Chrome, said Victor Khimenko, a Google Native Client programmer, in a follow-up message.