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Sun, HP to support
OpenGL 3D graphics API

Volume-leaders' support could mean more 3D apps, more graphics cards options

By George Lawton

September  1995
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Sun Microsystems and Hewlett Packard have recently announced plans to support OpenGL in their native operating systems, providing a vote of confidence for the fledgling standard. This could mean more 3D graphics applications for Sun and HP users, as well as cheaper third-party hardware accelerators optimized for OpenGL.

3D graphics have always been a computationally intensive task. In the old days, 3D programmers optimized their programs at the assembly code level to eek out the best performance. To simplify developers' lives, computer vendors offered application programming interfaces (APIs) in the form of libraries that were optimized for their hardware. APIs allowed developers to focus on their applications, and not tweaking code.

With more than 2,000 applications written to its API, Silicon Graphics' IrisGL is the king of 3D graphics libraries. By contrast, about 200 applications support Sun's rival XGL API.

Since its introduction,
dozens of vendors have pledged
allegiance to OpenGL.

However, the problem with IrisGL and other APIs is that they are vendor-specific. Once an application has been written for an SGI box using IrisGL, the developer must go through a substantial effort to port to a Sun box using XGL. In 1992, SGI created the OpenGL specification, which it based on IrisGL. It was intended to enable programmers to write 3D applications that could be ported across platforms easily.

Since its introduction, dozens of vendors have pledged allegiance to OpenGL. Its backers include AT&T, Cirrus Logic, Cray Research, Digital Equipment, Harris Computer, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NCD, NEC, Samsung, and Sony among others. Until now Sun and Hewlett-Packard, the two largest Unix workstation vendors, have been absent from this group. This fact dampened OpenGL's viability in the biggest market for sophisticated 3D applications.

All of this changed when Silicon Graphics loosened its control over OpenGL enough to assure Sun and HP that each would have a say in OpenGL's course.

In the past, developers could create OpenGL applications for Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard hardware using third-party OpenGL libraries. Template Graphics Software, San Diego, CA offers the Open GL library for Solaris, while Portable Graphics Austin, TX, sells OpenGL toolkits for Solaris and Hewlett-Packard computers.


As you'd might expect, Sun's decision to back OpenGL is having a dramatic impact on Portable Graphic business plan. It recently cut the price of Solaris OpenGL from $4,995 to $295, and will focus its efforts on developing object-oriented development tools that work with OpenGL.

Bill Thompson, account manager at Portable Graphics said that their strategy is now to serve as a stepping stone for those that want to begin working with OpenGL on Sun boxes, before Sun's OpenGL release next year.

Thompson noted, "In my opinion no one can do OpenGL better than the manufacturer of hardware because they can take advantage of undocumented features of it."

Meanwhile, Template Graphics will emphasize OpenGL libraries for the Macintosh and Windows 95.

Sun's plans
Niraj Swarup, group marketing manager for graphics at Sun Microsystems said, "There has been the option of running OpenGL on Sun but it has been through a third party. Going forward, this will lead to better optimization because it is the same group of individuals that are also creating the hardware."

Swarup also pointed out that companies want to see a commitment from vendors before they commit to OpenGL. Currently users have to buy OpenGL libraries from a third party to use the applications that run on top of it. This has resulted in some hesitancy from companies that don't want to concern themselves with compatibility between the OpenGL products from different vendors. Once Sun and HP release their OpenGL implementations, users will only have to buy the applications.

Why Open?
Silicon Graphics has always ruled the computer graphics arena. There are more high-end graphics applications written for IrisGL and SGI platforms than any other workstation. It seems odd, that it would want to abandon this significant lead over the competition with an open environment that could put them on even footing with their competitors.

However, John Schimpf, OpenGL product manager at SGI, believes that the standard plays an important part in SGI's evolution. He explained, "You reach a point where you can't control any market for too long. We are confident of our understanding of the market. There is still a learning curve the new players will have to spend time on. Just because you are deploying an API does not give you full advantage of the market. We are recognizing there is an explosion of interest in computer graphics, and the potential ownership of this market could shift in a way in which we had less control."

The key reason that Hewlett Packard and Sun have held out from this standard for so long has been their reluctance to believe that OpenGL is a new standard, and not some marketing trick from SGI.

Sun's Swarup commented on Sun's hesitancy to join the OpenGL governing board, "OpenGL was not a standard. We were not convinced of how open it was. There have been some changes that have been made in terms of how the openness is handled. We are now more convinced about the ability of a non SGI company to influence the future of this library. It also looked like the market was ready to move from IrisGL to OpenGL."

Silicon Graphics itself, only recently began shipping computers optimized for OpenGL, for example the Impact series shipped with hardware optimized for OpenGL. Schimpf said that the Impact makes some OpenGL applications like texture mapping run as much as 4 times faster than similar IrisGL programs on the same hardware.

OpenGL will do little to accelerate the existing base of hardware that has been optimized for XGL or IrisGL. However, it will create a large unified market for 3D accelerator chips and boards, because vendors will be able to port the same hardware across multiple platforms. This will have a tendency to drive the price down. For example, 3D Labs, San Jose, CA, has developed a 3D acceleration kit for OpenGL which can be ported to a number hardware platforms and operating systems.

The real benefit of OpenGL may be as an underlying component of a cross-platform 3D presentation system. Once OpenGL is available in the native operating systems of many computers, it will be easier for developers to create new kinds of applications. Schimpf said, "If you look at where we have gone with the Web, VRML, Open Inventor, and other layers that can sit on top of that, I don't think there is any question we are removing any underlying uncertainty about which graphics API will be the one. Implementations will lower the hesitency about creating applications on OpenGL. Once you have hit that point you will see more innovation."

-- George Lawton

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