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VRML looks to open source

After an internal shake-up, 3D browser and tools owner Platinum Technologies plans to turn over its source code.

The open-source earthquake has hit 3D on the Web--an area desperately in need of a shake-up.

After some gyrations of its own, 3D browser and tools owner Platinum Technologies has signed a letter of intent with the Web3D Consortium to turn over the source code to those products for some kind of development project.

Under open-source development, the underlying source code to a piece of software is published, enabling any developer to work on it. Firms embracing Source code for the masses open source must create or rely on organizations to shepherd such development efforts; one famous example is Netscape Communications' Mozilla.org, which manages open-source development of Netscape's Communicator Web browsing software.

As in the Netscape example, Platinum appears to have turned to the open-source solution as way of rescuing a foundering effort. In Netscape's case, the browser was succumbing to Microsoft's Internet Explorer in market share, and the company was depending on it less and less for revenue--ultimately giving it away free of charge.

In Platinum's case, the decision to give away the source code to its 3D browser and tools comes as the company lays off 1,000 employees, including many in its Intervista and Cosmo units. Platinum acquired those businesses to add visualization technologies to its infrastructure management solutions. But as the company has fallen on hard times, development efforts on the 3D browser and tools have proved an impractical drain on resources. Enter open source.

The immediate recipient and ultimate shepherd of the source code is the Web 3D Consortium. Formerly known as the VRML Consortium, the group last year changed its name after deciding to embrace technologies other than Virtual Reality Modeling Language (or VRML, an acronym that rhymes with "thermal").

The consortium's major accomplishment has been the release of VRML 97 by the International Organization for Standardization. Its failure has been the lack of any widespread adoption of VRML or any other 3D technology on the Web.

The consortium took one step toward remedying that situation with this month's announcment of a next-generation specification called X3D. This new technology will make VRML lighter and more componentized. That means that developers who need just one part of the technology can pick and choose among various components.

X3D, as the name suggests, implements the World Wide Web Consortium's Extensible Markup Language (XML) recommendation. The consortium has expressed interest in the past in XML, particularly as it is implemented in Microsoft's Chromeffects technology.

The consortium plans to submit to the ISO an X3D submission by year's end.

Platinum and the consortium have yet to hammer out tricky issues on the open-source effort, including the licensing terms. The groups will disclose more details in coming weeks.

Consortium president Neil Trevett applauded Platinum's decision.

"Platinum has done laudible thing," Trevett said. "As things stand, the fate of VRML 97 depends on where Platinum ends up. But if they can't continue to maintain and support existing 3D on the Web, the source is in hands of the public."

Once development gets started, it will have a direct effect on the browser and tools and an indirect one on the shaping of the X3D next-generation specification.

"X3D is in the process of being defined by the W3D Consortium," Trevett said. "We have to be careful how we best use the gift of open source regarding X3D. There is some danger that it could delay X3D and confuse and defuse our aims." But Trevett said that it was likely the Platinum browser and tools source base would be used as a foundation on which to base the new specification.

The software included in the open source release includes Cosmo Worlds, the authoring tool; Cosmo Player, a browser plug-in; Cosmo PageFX, a tool for adding depth, motion, and interactivity; Cosmo Code, a visual development toolset for Java; WorldView, a VRML 97 3D viewing plug-in; and WorldView for Developers, an ActiveX component for letting Windows application developers work with the WorldView platform.