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Microsoft, Netscape agree on 3D

The two companies see eye to eye on a standard for VRML, three-dimensional Web technology.

In a rare sign of unity, Microsoft (MSFT) and Netscape Communications (NSCP) have agreed on a standard for three-dimensional Web technology.

Under the agreement, both companies will include standard VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) 2.0 technology in their Web browsers. As a result, users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape's Navigator will get access to VRML pages on the Web without having to download plug-ins. The companies have also pledged to maintain interoperability of their VRML products.

The agreement is expected to jump-start VRML development, which has been hindered by a lack of clear industry consensus over a standard. Developers have approached the 3D language cautiously thus far, doubtful that users would take the time to download plug-ins or that VRML pages would be interoperable from one browser to another.

"This is probably the most important thing to happen to VRML in a long time," said Abhishek Gami, an analyst with Nesbitt Burns Securities.

As a result of the agreement, he predicted, Web users could expect to see an acceleration of applications and services based on the core modeling language technology within the next year.

Those applications and services range from 3D chat--in which users are represented by their own voices and graphical representations, or avatars--to 3D marketing tools that, for example, let customers view a product from different points of view.

"The agreement will give developers a sense of security and commitment," said Microsoft business development manager Christopher Phillips. "Now developers can see that this is a new technology going mainstream. Before, VRML was always relegated to being highbrow, academic, not ready for prime time."

Microsoft and Netscape made their announcement at the Siggraph trade show in Los Angeles this afternoon. They were joined by Silicon Graphics, whose Cosmo subsidiary is providing Netscape with its VRML browser, and by Intervista, which is supplying Microsoft with its WorldView browser. Cosmo and Intervista announced that they would collaborate through the VRML Consortium to maintain interoperability of their browsers as they evolve.

In some rare good news for Macintosh users, both companies announced support for the Mac platform. WorldView for the Mac is available now in beta, while Cosmo will ship its Mac VRML browser in September.

The agreement between Netscape and Microsoft follows separate efforts earlier this year to establish a VRML standard. In January, Netscape and Silicon Graphics announced their own VRML accord. The same week, Microsoft donated VRML technology it had licensed from Intervista Software and from Dimension X to the VRML Consortium.

Although Netscape and Microsoft may be sharing the spirit of cooperation, the standard is expected to splinter as time goes by, especially in higher-level applications. But Gami said the agreement on a base standard is in the interest of both companies.

"There isn't a significant amount of money to be made in owning the VRML standard. But there is a lot of money to be made in tools to create VRML environments and in the commerce that follows once you start that."

Other challenges still facing VRML developers and browser companies include refining hardware and user interface. "That's something we still need to work on," Microsoft's Phillips conceded. "Our perception in real life is pretty different from using a mouse and a screen."