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5/3/2013
07:16 PM
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Apple, Microsoft Challenged By Streaming Software Plan

Autodesk, Mozilla and Otoy have a plan to stream software from any platform into Web browsers.

5 Apple iPad 5 Wishes
5 Apple iPad 5 Wishes
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Mozilla and Otoy, a graphics technology company, on Friday announced a JavaScript library that allows native desktop applications to be virtualized in the cloud and streamed to modern Web browsers, a development that has the potential to make computing hardware less relevant and to diminish the gatekeeping power currently enjoyed by Apple and and Microsoft.

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, native code and legacy applications can be hosted in the cloud (e.g. Amazon EC2), and stream interactive graphics, 3D rendering or low latency video to a standard HTML5 page without using plugins or native code, or even the video tag (which, like Google NaCL,is vendor specific — ORBX.js works on all five major browsers)," explained Otoy founder and CEO Jules Urbach in an email. "The video codec created for ORBX.js can decode 1080p60 at a quality on par with H.264, using only JavaScript."

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.

[ Read Google Glass: First Impressions. ]

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.

Writing polished, commercially viable games using Web technologies like JavaScript has proven to be a challenge and in recent years developers have tended to favor native code for games because of the maturity of native development tools, industry habit and the marketing advantages of established online stores. Those advantages, however, are eroding, though efforts to advance Web technology and as a result of the proliferation of native apps, which have become so abundant that standing out in an app store is as difficult as standing out on the open Web.

Apple has perpetuated the disparity between native apps and Web apps by not swiftly moving to implement technologies that would make Web apps perform better. For example, it doesn't yet support WebGL by default in desktop versions of Safari and doesn't support it at all in mobile Safari, except for its iAds service. It also continues to limit access to its Nitro JavaScript engine, ostensibly for security reasons. This has the effect of making third-party native apps that invoke the Web using a UIWebView control or Web apps saved to the iOS homescreen perform less well than Apple apps or Web apps opened in mobile Safari.

"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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