A Cautionary Tale

While Bill is on Christmas break, we rerun this cautionary tale about the dangers of being too early to market.

I have written in this space about how the virtual reality modeling language (VRML) technology was developed and its huge potential in the world of online advertising.

More than any other web technology, VRML represented the ideal of the nonproprietary open standards movement, and ironically, it was this adherence to the fanatical religion of open standards that sowed the seeds of VRML’s eventual destruction.

Unlike Macromedia’s Flash technology, nobody “owns” VRML. It was quite literally created on a mailing list by a bunch of like-minded folks, although the eventual specs for VRML 1.0 and VRML 2.0 were developed by Silicon Graphics and freely given to the VRML community. This means that if you should want to develop VRML tools, browsers, or applications, you are free to do so without having to pay any royalty fee. Sounds great, right?

Wrong.

The problem was that although the VRML specification was sacrosanct, the way that spec was interpreted was not. Anyone could create a VRML browser, but each browser would interpret the VRML file differently.

Designers and authors of VRML content were forced to develop multiple versions of the same work since their applications would look and behave differently, depending on which browser the viewer had on his or her machine. VRML 1.0 was incompatible with VRML 2.0.

The leading VRML 2.0 browsers, the Cosmo Player from SGI’s Cosmo Software division and WorldView from VRML start-up Intervista, had bugs that made corrected revisions incompatible with each other. It was as if all documents created in Word 2.1 would be scrambled if one attempted to work on them in Word 2.2.

Soon a number of incompatible VRML players were on the market, which meant that even if you saw VRML content on the web, chances were high that it wouldn’t run. Because there was no single source controlling the look, feel, and interpretation of the data file, VRML began to be crushed under the weight of the “open standards” mantle.

But there was light at the end of the tunnel: advertising. And what was needed was a single large content provider to choose one of the VRML players and go with it. In 1998, this almost happened. A large, unnamed-but-you-can-guess-who-it-is online service became very interested in VRML as a way of enhancing the advertising on its site as well as punching up its user interface. Since it controlled what software its users had, the incompatibility issue would go away. The Holy Grail was at hand for VRML, and it was all because of advertising and the power of vector graphics.

Alas, time was not on VRML’s side. Events were conspiring against the cool little technology invented on a mailing list. First SGI, which owned Cosmo Software (the leading VRML technology provider), was having its own problems.

Microsoft was eating its lunch. Its stock was dropping like a stone. The CEO resigned, there were layoffs, and products and divisions (including Cosmo Software) not related to the core hardware business were being shopped around or cut loose.

In the meantime, Intervista, the other VRML company, was having Microsoft problems of its own. Microsoft, which was the major source of distribution for Intervista’s WorldView VRML player, had developed Chrome Effects, its own 3D web, and as a result VRML went further and further down Internet Explorer’s priority list. By the summer of 1998, Intervista had been sold to Platinum Technologies, a developer of back-end enterprise software solutions. After a potential deal with Sony fell apart, Cosmo Software was also sold to Platinum Technologies.

A single owner of the major VRML technologies could have been the savior of VRML, but VRML development soon stagnated under Platinum’s leadership. The online service provider got rightfully nervous and backed away, and VRML began its slow descent into oblivion.

The final insult occurred during the VRML 1999 conference in Germany. While the Platinum VRML employees were out of the country manning the Platinum trade show booth, Platinum laid off the entire VRML division in a Monday morning blood bath. Within another month or two, Platinum itself was sold to Computer Associates, which inherited the VRML browsers and tools and currently sits on them.

This is but part of the epic. The story of VRML is one of the greatest chapters in the history of the Internet, and one day the entire tale needs to be told.

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