Microsoft shelves Chromeffects

The company's multimedia efforts falter as it back-burners its 3D graphics technology and shakes up management.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
Microsoft's multimedia efforts faltered this week as the company back-burnered its Chromeffects 3D graphics technology and shuffled its multimedia management team, CNET News.com has learned.

Announced in July, the Chromeffects software developer kit was released the following month. A general release of the Windows add-on was scheduled for next quarter--but Microsoft this week decided to move back that date indefinitely.

"Based on developer feedback, we are stepping back and redesigning Chromeffects technologies to better meet both our partner and customer needs," said Rob Bennett, marketing group product manager for personal and business systems at Microsoft.

Concurrently, Microsoft has moved Eric Engstrom, its general manager for multimedia efforts, over to the MSN team, where he will be general manager of Web product development. His former responsibilities in multimedia--the troubled Chromeffects efforts as well as Microsoft's NetShow streaming media technologies--will fall to Deborah Black, who will maintain her current title of general manager of Windows presentation technologies.

Chromeffects, built to arm everyday Web sites with the kind of powerful multimedia and animation found in gaming environments, has encountered a barrage of criticism from the developer community since its launch three months ago. Dominating the developer wish list are requests for better compliance with World Wide Web Consortium recommendations, both those already ratified and those currently under consideration.

One W3C recommendation is the recently approved document object model, which lets programs and scripting languages act on various Web page elements.

Another Web standard where Chromeffects needs work is HTML+TIME. Acknowledged by the W3C in September, this key submission would let multimedia presentations on the Web interact with HTML elements.

Microsoft will work on better visualization techniques, and better support for database integration including data binding on the front end and XML Query Language on the back end.

Data binding, introduced in Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser version 4.0, lets the browser access a database and render its information on a Web page. XQL, recently taken under consideration by the W3C, is a method for making information contained in Web pages more easily and thoroughly searchable.

In addition to standards support, developers found fault with Chromeffects' performance and quality with device drivers.

Microsoft will send Chromeffects back to the shop for an undetermined period of time. Originially called Chrome and designed as an add-on to the Windows operating system, Chromeffects is unlikely to be released with Windows 2000 Professional, which is due next year.

Bennett said that Chromeffects technologies still might ship as an integrated feature of some future versions of Windows. But that decision has yet to be made definitively.

Microsoft has long touted Chromeffects as a key part of its multimedia and Web strategies. The add-on attempts to bridge the company's popular DirectX gaming technology and the Web, making high-speed multimedia content accessible using HTML formats so it can be rendered efficiently in a browser.

Chromeffects relies on XML to define various multimedia shapes and objects so that multimedia content can be assembled at the client even when delivered to comparatively low-bandwidth environments. In this respect it can be thought of as a 3D version of Vector Markup Language, a W3C specification for a text format for 2D graphics.

Microsoft repeatedly has played catch-up in the multimedia arena, with some success. The company challenged Apple's dominance in multimedia software, and recently has pushed its NetShow streaming technology to make considerable inroads against RealNetworks' market-leading video and audio technology. (Microsoft is an investor in Real, but the relationship between the two companies has soured in recent months.)

Microsoft may have rushed Chromeffects to market to help it compete against Real's G2 player, released this summer, according to Dataquest multimedia analyst Sujata Ramnarayan.

The Justice Department's antitrust case against Microsoft, which last week spotlighted multimedia efforts aimed at Apple's QuickTime, also may have inspired the company to withdraw Chromeffects, she added.

"You cannot help but wonder how much this has to do with the antitrust case," Ramnarayan said. "In some ways this technology is related to Java, and also it would put Real at a disadavantage."

Java, a platform-independent programming language developed by Sun Microsystems, is the source of another legal headache for Microsoft. Sun has sued Microsoft for allegedly "polluting" the cross-platform aspect of Java, in effect misusing its license.

"If you look at Java and Chromeffects carefully, the concepts are somewhat similar," Ramnarayan said. "The way Microsoft had postioned Chromeffects was that it would render content on your PC. In that respect it's similar to Java."