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Microsoft DirectX killing innovation

New lamps for old
Thu Mar 27 2003, 10:23
MICROSOFT'S RECENT withdrawal from the W3C Panel is yet another nail in the coffin of open standards that allow for contributions form several sources. This behaviour has been a trademark of Microsoft, which seems to be sticking to it's monopolistic guns has an attitude of 'anything we can you, we can do better'. Often times this behaviour is at the exclusion of other interested parties, such as the Messenger debacle and the Java mistake. Is Microsoft's behaviour stifling growth and innovation? Lets have a look at a little case study called 'DirectX'.

DirectX, for those who have had their heads in the sand, is Microsoft's standardized interface to ensure windows compatibility with most of today's games. DirectX provides the 'feature sheet' for anyone programming for windows, and streamlines coding for windows. Sounds wonderful, but for those people who have been around a while DirectX has not had a spotless history.

Rewind several years to the birth of 3D accelerated cards. "In the Beginning..." there were several manufacturers vying for control of the market. Significant players included Rendition, 3DFX, and Matrox. Each of the cards had a different feature set, and a different focus. Issues arose because they all required that the games be hardware-specifically 'ported' to take advantage of the feature set. Thus began the standards wars. Game titles would come out supporting two or more major 3d vendors, and if your card was not supported, c'est la vie. This led to an initiative by some game companies to program in OpenGL, an advanced graphics API that allowed for easy cross-platform programming.

Some graphic card makers were left in the dust, as their cards did not support any of the OpenGL extensions, and could not be used in an OpenGL environment. 3DFX ruled the roost for a while with the exemplary (for the time) performance under OpenGL. Microsoft, not to be outdone, released their DirectX API and included some 3D functionality. The first iterations of DirectX were cumbersome and quirky and often the image quality was inferior to the output of OpenGL. Two camps started to form around the two competing API's, DirectX and OpenGL. Nvidia produced a card that had a strong DirectX bias, and was competing directly with the 3DFX offering. 3DFX, on the other hand, regularly beat the pants off nvidia in any OpenGL benchmarks.

Fast forward.

3DFX rather ungracefully exited the 3D market, and left Nvidia in a leadership position for several years. Matrox has shifted focus out of the consumer arena, and ATI has recently caught up to the lumbering giant. Microsoft has taken the buffing wheel to DirectX, although it seems to me that it took several tries to get it right. Up until DirectX8, the graphics cards were paving the way, with DX playing catch-up to incorporate the new features. This resulted in some confusion with various levels of shaders supported independently by ATI and Nvidia.

With the recent release of DirectX9 and the fervour of graphic card announcements, a disturbing trend is emerging. It seems that the graphic industry is now chasing the DirectX standard rather than leading it. In some ways, this is the prudent thing to do because including features that are not supported under DirectX would require special porting of any game to a graphics card to utilize additional features. In other ways, its a frightening trend as the graphic industry has the next generation of features laid out by the ever-benevolent Microsoft. Rather than having diverging philosophies prodding the 3D market in ever-expanding circles, the market is marching to the beat of one drummer. In my opinion, this is leading to a homogenization of the graphics market, with each card only having token differences in functionality. I am sure that the way the graphics information is handled on each card is different, but the end result is similar. Where has the innovation gone?

The heady spirit of adventure in the early days of accelerated cards has been replaced by a lumbering, palsied R&D division pecking away at maintaining Dx9 compliance. Seeing as how DirectX10 is not even a twinkle in Microsoft's eye right now, hopefully this will again encourage the card companies to strive for more than just compliance with DX9.

Back to Microsoft's withdrawal from the W3C panel. Clearly, with the absolute domination of market share that Microsoft currently enjoys, whichever way they decide to go, everyone will follow. If I was in Microsoft's shoes, would I sit on a panel and hammer out compromises to allow other players to enter the market? Silly question. Microsoft has demonstrated time and time again that regardless of what is best for the market in general, it will head off on it's own path dragging vendors, manufacturers and consumers screaming in its wake.

This is one man's opinion. µ

 

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