IT standards - shake it up!

07 March 2011

When developing new IT standards, a committee-based approach is important for the greater good, but having multiple competing standards can certainly help drive things forward, writes Rob Jamieson

I have read a few articles recently that have suggested that the divergence in mobile technologies is jeopardising the formation of a universal 3D standard. With the massive range of smart phones and tablets, many with different operating systems and web browsers, there is no single way to view 3D data.

With the constant evolution of technology it certainly makes things hard for software developers and end users alike. Supporting a number of competing standards is no easy task and retaining compatibility with suppliers is a challenge, but is it such a bad thing in the long run?

Getting companies to work together on new standards can be a very difficult process. It can stifle innovation and be inefficient. History has taught us that often one or more companies need to take a lead
to drive things forward. They may not get things exactly right first time, but without this push it would not have made other technologies possible.

Take OpenGL, for example, which is used by virtually all of the leading software developers to provide interactive 3D graphics in CAD/CAM/CAE applications. The standard is currently managed by the Khronos group, a not for profit organisation made up of many of the industry’s leading media-centric companies. This helps keep the standard fully open and means it can run on multiple platforms including PC, Mac, Linux and Unix.

However, OpenGL wasn’t actually started by committee. It was originally developed by SGI and was in direct competition with technologies from Sun, HP and IBM. It became the industry standard because it was the best technology of the time.

Diversification certainly brings new audiences and new opportunities, but it needs to be balanced against committee style development, which helps looks after the greater good

When developing new standards there are also benefits to having the backing of a committee from the outset. It can help ensure standards are kept as open as possible, which is to the benefit of the industry as a whole. For example, the Khronos group has handled the development of OpenCL from the very beginning.

This an open standard for parallel programming on different platforms and hardware. It will run on Linux, Unix, PC, and Apple and on CPUs GPUs and ALUs (arithmetic logic units) from multiple vendors. This is now on version 1.1 and things are starting to move forward.

Standards need to be challenged in order to drive development. Microsoft’s DirectX, which only runs on the Windows platform, has given OpenGL stiff competition over the years.

With its success in 3D games and some CAD applications, it has helped push forward development of OpenGL and 3D graphics technology in general. Today a lot more development has come back to OpenGL, not only because of increased performance, but also for its ability to support multiple platforms including the Mac.

Looking further back in time, in the seventies the CAD standard was run on Prime systems, which had green screens and everything was controlled with a “puck”. In the eighties Autodesk challenged the status quo by introducing AutoCAD on the PC and started a trend to use smaller cheaper computers. You could say it ‘stole the standard’ from the mini computers then in use. Those PCs became the workstations of today.

Of course, the introduction of new standards is driven by market demand and it doesn’t always happen overnight. For many years the development of stereo 3D technology remained relatively static. But
now, fuelled by 3D cinema and 3D TV, there are a number of new standards emerging to bring lower cost stereo 3D technologies to market.

These standards are still in their development so are by no means perfect yet, but last year when I watched blue aliens run around on screen it didn’t hurt my eyes nearly as much as when I saw red and blue sharks swimming around in the 80s.

Sometimes standards can happily exist in their own ecosystem. Apple has been very successful with its own standard usage model across its range of products and with some snazzy designs has gained massive market share. Autodesk is launching Mac-based software again after dropping support in the 90s for AutoCAD.

As Apple has a good track record in effectively making a standard on its hardware a lot of people are looking to the company to make 3D more accessible. A lot of the industry press are fans of Apple’s products as the technology has been strong in publishing for years.

The editors of DEVELOP3D are no exception. I’m personally a PC head so I’m not so convinced, but this approach is working for Apple. I think I need more choice when it comes to hardware and the ability to tinker a little is important to make solutions a little more adaptable.

The older I get, the less I like change. When I was young I always wanted the latest toy or to be doing the latest craze. I haven’t completely lost that (I’m not old in my eyes) but today I just want things to work. You don’t need change for the sake of change or to fulfil the latest marketing hype, but new standards are needed to drive things forward. And sometimes this needs to be done by individual companies.

Diversification certainly brings new audiences and new opportunities, but it needs to be balanced against committee style development, which helps looks after the greater good. Developing new standards
is an evolutionary process, it’s a bit of Darwinism, but you need new things to come along to shake things up.

If Autodesk hadn’t introduced CAD to the PC, if PTC hadn’t made a 3D solid modelling package, if blue aliens hadn’t wanted to protect a tree etc I would still be using a puck.

Comments on this article:

You've mnaaged a first class post

Posted by Karess on Wednesday 12 2012 at 01:44 PM

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