Apple, Microsoft Challenged By Streaming Software Plan
Autodesk, Mozilla and Otoy have a plan to stream software from any platform into Web browsers.
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The code library, ORBX.js, can be thought of as a cloud-based alternative to Google's Native Client technology. It permits Linux, OS X and Windows applications to run on remote servers and to be presented in a Web browser.
With ORBX.js and a cloud service provider, you could conceivably run Value's PC Steam client on an Apple iMac or Google Chromebook. You could run Autodesk 3DS Max 2014 on an Android Nexus 7 tablet. You could run a big budget, graphically demanding game title like Left 4 Dead 2 in a Web browser, without any plugins, Flash, Java, NaCL or other supporting technology.
Other companies have tried this and failed, notably OnLive, which streamed online games all the way to bankruptcy. At a press event held on Friday at Autodesk's office in San Francisco, Calif., Jeff Kowalski, CTO of Autodesk, said the difference between OnLive's technology and Otoy's is, "This one works, it doesn't require any specialized hardware, runs in the browser. It's so much easier to deploy. "
Autodesk invested in Otoy in 2011 and has integrated Otoy technology into its own software. The company also invested in OnLive, so has some awareness of what works and what doesn't in terms of streaming.
Perhaps the most important feature of ORBX.js is that, as a Web technology, it cannot easily be banned.
Why would anyone want to ban it? Because streaming apps challenge existing business models and revenue streams. Apple refused to approve OnLive's iOS client app, presumably because it saw OnLive's ability to deliver and sell games to iOS users without paying a 30% fee as a threat to the iTunes App Store.
What's more, the ability to stream virtualized applications and games to Web browsers removes much of the incentive for upgrading computer hardware. "We want you to be able to downgrade your hardware," explained Kowalski, who reasons that his company's clients would be thrilled to stream Autodesk software to a $500 tablet instead of buying, installing and maintaining the software on a much more expensive workstation.
Using ORBX.js, you could run Android apps in Firefox on a Mac or Office for Windows in Chrome on a Chromebook. Operating system distinctions vanish in the cloud.
Google has been thinking along similar lines with Chrome OS. But Chrome OS adoption has been hindered by its inability to run popular Windows applications, like Microsoft Office. Google has been working to resolve this problem through the QuickOffice software it acquired, which should soon run in Chrome using NaCL, Google's technology for presenting native code in the browser.
The thing about the Web is that it has no gatekeeper. If you publish a game that runs in a Web browser, you don't have to pay Apple, Google, Microsoft, or any app store owner. You don't have to seek approval if the content is controversial.
"Apple has done everything they can to cripple the Web, so that you'll do native apps," said Urbach.
The Web as a platform, meanwhile, continues to recover from letdowns following the initial hype cycle — Google's 2009 declaration that the Web has won — and the shift of companies like Google and Facebook from Web apps to native apps on mobile devices.
By working with Mozilla, which has an interest in assuring that Web apps remains competitive with native apps, Otoy (and Autodesk) has a chance to make streaming far more important for software delivery and to make locally installed software and hardware far less important.
It's too early still to say how ORBX.js and associated technology will be licensed or made publicly available, but Urbach suggested software companies might be able to use an Amazon Machine Image (AMI) create a virtual machine running on Amazon EC2 to deliver an experience with the visual fidelity of Microsoft's Xbox at a cost of as little as $0.10 per GPU hour. Otoy's higher-end rendering service sells for $1 per GPU hour and Urbach suggested pricing of around $0.50 to $0.75 per GPU hour might be appropriate for high-quality streaming.
It's unlikely that streamed applications will ever totally replace the need for local computing resources. People do still work offline or in situations where network connectivity is constrained. But streaming content has undeniable appeal to large content providers because it can be watermarked to discourage unauthorized distribution. And streamed apps can't be copied, because the apps don't exist locally. As far as businesses are concerned, streamed apps are easier to manage than local ones .
"The ability to move things into the cloud has always been disruptive," said Urbach, demonstrating an Autodesk graphics application streamed to an iPad. "With what we're showing here, I think we're at a point where you just don't need to have a Windows PC anymore."
That's not the sort of sentiment that Apple or Microsoft are likely to let go unchallenged.
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