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Intel's 3D divorce rate

Company turns back on partners three times in four years. Behind the breakups: lousy technology or loss of control?

Developers of three-dimensional rendering technology for the Web known as X3D are bracing for a standards war with Intel--a former backer of the project--just as their recently sundered collaboration bears fruit.

When X3D, or Extensible 3D, reached a milestone earlier this month, publishing its first draft specification for CAD (computer-aided design), Intel was not part of the celebration.

The chip giant once embraced X3D, joining the Web 3D Consortium two years ago and promising great things from the partnership. But Intel, which thinks widespread use of 3D will stoke demand for high-end chips, backed out in the fall to launch its own group, its third change of heart in four years over 3D.


What's new:
Intel has turned its back on Web 3D partners three times in four years. Developers of X3D are bracing for a standards war.

Bottom line:
Intel blames the twists and turns of its 3D strategy on the rapidly changing marketplace, but some critics charge that the chip giant's decision to drop the technology reflects political rather than technical considerations.

More stories on this topic

While many software developers and industrial designers welcome the chipmaker's investment in 3D software, the company's erratic course in recent years has raised concern among some industry insiders and analysts that instead of promoting 3D, Intel may be threatening the industry with fragmentation.

"I think in a sense they are flip-flopping," said Kathleen Maher, an analyst at Jon Peddie Research in San Francisco. "Intel has been disappointed because they entered this a few years ago saying, 3D on the Web would be great--all we need is an easy way to get it to the Web....But it has yet to pan out. People who have poked around with 3D on the Web have given it up."

Others go further, with some critics charging that the chip giant's decision to drop the technology reflects political rather than technical considerations, coming only after Intel's efforts to dominate its X3D partners were frustrated.

"They had technology they wanted to push through a standards body, and when they couldn't get their way, they left," said one source close to the consortium who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Intel blames the twists and turns of its 3D strategy on the rapidly changing marketplace and insists that its present course of action is geared toward establishing a healthy market for 3D software.

"One of the secrets of this story is that Intel historically, through its labs and by working with special interest groups, has always tried to help promote new usage models and applications, whether 3D or multimedia generally, to help them grow in ways they have not otherwise," said Rick Benoit, a project marketing manager for Intel. "We like to catalyze growth in the industry."

Critics acknowledge that Intel's tortuous 3D path reflects broader instability in the 3D software world, where technologists and marketers have chronically found themselves waiting for a market that stubbornly refuses to materialize.

Even software giant Microsoft saw its Web 3D efforts wash up.

Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML)--which on May 24 celebrated the 10th anniversary of its first public demonstration--was the first technology to generate hype about the potential of 3D on the Web, only to be met with a decade of limited market demand.

The current 3D push at both Intel and the Web 3D Consortium is tangential to the Web, focusing instead on technology that can make CAD data accessible to a broad range of applications. The idea behind current efforts is to let marketing, sales and other non-design professionals access and repurpose data now locked into complex, proprietary CAD applications.

Entering the third dimension
In the CAD effort, 3D backers think they've finally found something that will sell.

"This is where an untapped commercial opportunity lies," said Neil Trevett, president of the Web 3D Consortium. "Manuals, internal documentation, sales materials--all these things could use the fundamental CAD data. But there's been no industry standard."

VRML's successor, X3D, got a significant boost two years ago when Intel spearheaded a working group at the Web 3D Consortium to develop just such a CAD distillation format.

That working group early this month completed the first working draft of the CAD Distillation Format, a royalty-free technology that will access CAD data while protecting proprietary information.

But Intel won't be cutting any X3D ribbons, having quit the group last year.

Instead, Intel in October organized its own by-invitation standards group to work on CAD extraction, the 3D Industry Forum (3DIF), taking with it a host of X3D CAD working group participants including key industry players like Boeing and Adobe Systems.

That group, which announced its formation in April, has already published a draft version of its format, called U3D, or Universal 3D.

Now the consortium and 3DIF are working on technology that promises to do essentially the same thing with CAD data. Both groups plan to send it by year's end to the same standards body for ratification, the International Standardization Organization.

More troubling to some members of the Web 3D Consortium, the 3D Industry Forum appears to be reaching beyond the CAD problem to create a general-purpose 3D format that would compete with X3D itself.

The forum's mission, according to its Web site, is to "further the adoption of 3D by establishing 3DIF technologies and standards as well accepted and widely deployed offerings utilized by content developers, software and hardware ISVs (independent software vendors), governmental entities and end users."

"They are on a collision course," said analyst Maher. "May the better group win--and may they work together."

Participants at the Web 3D Consortium and at Intel do not deny the possibility of cooperating again. Both took pains to emphasize they parted without enmity. Consortium President Neil Trevett said his group is grateful to Intel for launching its work on CAD data distillation.

Intel "helped us really focus our efforts," Trevett said. "The experience of the CAD working group helped us realize that X3D is a very suitable foundation for this initiative, and if we are able to solve multiple problems in the industry using X3D then we can solve a lot of problems across market segments."

Trevett declined to comment on why Intel abandoned his consortium's CAD working group. But a source familiar with the working group said Intel left after the group declined to adopt the company's 3D runtime environment.

"It appeared that Intel not only wanted to solve this CAD problem, but wanted to do it in a way that promoted their own runtime system," said the source, who declined to be named.

Intel's Benoit said the working group's rejection of the chipmaker's runtime system was not the company's reason for leaving, and instead blamed the consortium for prioritizing standards over industrial realities.

"We submitted a runtime environment," Benoit acknowledged. "But we didn't approach this to create a standard for its own sake. We brought the CAD working group to the consortium, and as we realized that the commercial viability wasn't being served there, we decided we needed a venue that was more agile, more flexible and more responsive to the industry."

History of misses
Intel's membership in the Web 3D Consortium wasn't its only 3D misfire in recent years. The company's April 20 announcement of the 3DIF marked its third major 3D collaboration strategy since 2000, when it claimed its new partnership with San Francisco-based Macromedia would "allow 3D to take off on the Web."

By all accounts, that hasn't happened.

Shockwave 3D "didn't become the universal application that they had hoped, of course," Maher said. "It's still a function within Macromedia's tools. Intel was the more disillusioned party because Macromedia didn't open it up as freely as Intel thought they were going to. In order to author stuff, you had to use Macromedia's tools."

Macromedia did not return calls seeking comment.

Benoit said he didn't know whether or not his company and Macromedia had quarreled over Shockwave 3D's openness. But he noted that in figuring out where to go from the moribund arena of 3D shopping and online games, Intel asked Macromedia to continue their partnership.

Macromedia, according to Intel, turned down the chipmaker.

"We invited Macromedia to participate, but they basically realized that they wanted to move away from 3D because it didn't pan out from a revenue generation perspective," Benoit said. "So they redirected their resources to their core products like Flash."

The failure of the collaboration between Intel and Macromedia took a heavy toll on the 3D start-ups it inspired.

"That was a period when everyone thought 3D on the Web was going to be huge," Maher recalled. "And there was so much hope that it spawned a lot of businesses. A lot of companies placed their bets on it, and they were all sort of murdered by the failure of that collaboration."

Intel blamed the Shockwave 3D failure to live up to expectations on the vagaries of the market, and said it had drawn on that experience in deciding to quit the Web 3D Consortium and spend the next several months doing market research with the likes of Boeing, BMW, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed and Airbus.

"We missed the target (with Shockwave 3D) because at that time, the 3D focus was on games, entertainment, the retail space," Benoit said. "With the Internet bust, it just didn't pan out. That's why we took the approach we did this time, which was to go to the end users first and find out what they wanted."