New Web Apps Era – Microsoft IE 11 WebGL

While the current version of IE is version 10, another version is under development called IE version 11. With version 11, a new class of software applications may be coming that could better combine the best of the desktop with the accessibility of the Web. The new software applications will be written to use WebGL. A primary benefit of WebGL is the ability run software faster while having better graphics and vastly better ways to present and receive information from the end-user.

According to a recent post on Slashdot about IE 11 that talks about WebGL among other things, the web site the article links to indicates that Microsoft has not only built WebGL into Microsoft Internet Explorer 11, but they are making good progress in its integration. Looking at some of the reported analysis on the way in which Microsoft Internet Explorer 11 supports WebGL, it is very close to production ready. By the time it is released for Christmas holiday 2013, if not sooner, the technology should be ready on day one to handle many of the more demanding software graphics approaches software developers can throw at it. The result should be more superior web software applications.

Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight are great screen graphics and end-user application technologies. Both ranked highest as my favorite user interface technologies of the 8 or so I have either used or experimented with. Similarities exist between what both Adobe Flash/Microsoft Silverlight and WebGL tries to do which is to make access to sophisticated features of the video card more streamlined. However, WebGL is optimized to run better since it is potentially much closer to the desktop than Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. The end result should be many of the same stellar desktop applications today available over the web with far less lost in the translation from desktop to web as far as industrial strength reliability and speed. That remains to be seen, but a technology like WebGL introduces the fundamentals for such a thing to occur.

Another great aspect to the approach with WebGL, at least in this case, is that it is not a plug-in. Rather than a plug-in like Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight, WebGL is built right into the web browser. Both of these conditions, desktop technology and built-in to the browser, when combined with the Web means you get software applications delivered faster, requiring no installs, and with an overall performance higher than HTML5. However, I would not be surprised to see HTML5 Canvas get rewritten to use WebGL behind the scenes as WebGL becomes more pervasive.

Like HTML5, WebGL is a standard and is built on top of another standard called OpenGL ES. OpenGL ES is the smaller, more compact and nimble form of the larger OpenGL which has been widely used by the graphics, simulation, and movie industry for many years. This means you can still make the same kinds of web applications you make today, but you can also take them to the next level and create something that is more visually capable than what you might achieve with HTML.

The great thing about having a standard like this is that in addition to Microsoft Internet Explorer, this standard, unlike other advanced graphics technologies in its category, is supported across most major web browser makers. You can test your web browser using at the WebGL test page to see if it supports WebGL. If you are using a very recent version Firefox or Chrome, you should definitely see something. If you are on Microsoft Internet Explorer, you may have to wait until IE 11 is released. With the added support for WebGL in Microsoft Internet Explorer 11 and the current support by the browser makers, the use of WebGL may become more practical. This also means that the adoption potential and impact should be quite high. An optimistic forecast to be sure but given the multi-year maturity of the OpenGL ES and OpenGL technology that underpins WebGL and the abundant involvement and commitment by the open source community in its development, it should stand as a valuable investment.

The next step beyond WebGL for the web browser makers would be to consider the addition of Google Native Client technology to further enhance the situation as to the kind of software the can be made for and delivered over the web. You can learn more about Google Native Client on their web page for the technology. If you have Google Chrome you can also check out WebGL demos for a taste of what it can do. WebGL reference materials and general technical knowledge for software developers can be gained by going to the WebGL homepage hosted by the Khronos Group.

Long-term, Microsoft may benefit as a technology such as this would allow systems like Microsoft Office 365 and other cloud and subscription based solutions to work more like the desktop applications of the past but available across all end-user operating systems. That broad reach will certainly benefit the bottom-line for them and anyone seeking the widest reach for their software applications while not sacrificing quality or presentational strength.


By Michael Gautier

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