Microsoft and 3D Graphics: A Case Study in Suppressing Innovation and Competition
by Alan Akin
The original version of this article was written in July, 1997, and is reproduced (with minor changes to improve continuity and to update hyperlinks) in the first few sections following the Foreword. If you're familiar with the original version, feel free to skip to the August, 1998 Update; otherwise, please proceed to the Introduction.
In the last five years, three-dimensional computer graphics has become a critical technology in the PC world. 3D graphics capability is a prerequisite for two major markets: Computer-aided industrial and mechanical design (for which the majority of workstations and high-end PCs are sold today) and entertainment (especially computer games, which are driving significant new PC hardware and software purchases by consumers). Examining Microsoft's treatment of 3D graphics technology is especially instructive, because so many of Microsoft's actions in that area have been exposed to public scrutiny.
We must define two technical concepts in order to understand the issues in detail.
Application Programming Interfaces
First is the notion of an Application Programming Interface, or API. An API is essentially a library of small functions that a software developer pieces together to form a complete computer program. For example, a 3D graphics API might include functions that draw objects, simulate the effects of lights, and determine which objects are visible from a given point of view. A software developer could use these functions to build a flight simulation game: drawing mountains and buildings that would be visible through the cockpit canopy of an airplane, and lighting them as they would be lit by the sun.
The design of a 3D graphics API determines what can be drawn, how quickly it can be drawn, and how easy it is for a software developer to achieve a desired effect. Thus the API is of fundamental technical and business importance to the software developers who use it.
Second is the notion of a device driver. A device driver (driver for short) is a piece of software that implements an API on a given hardware device. For example, the functions of a 3D graphics API might be implemented differently on the video card in a Compaq PC than they would be implemented on another video card in a Dell PC. In such a case, the two hardware vendors (Compaq and Dell) would each write drivers for the 3D graphics API on their respective video cards. Note that the API would be used in the same way on both machines; only its implementation details (the drivers) would differ.
A driver is key to the viability of its associated API and all the application programs that use it. The existence of a driver determines whether a given API is even available on a particular machine. The quality of the driver (its completeness, performance, and reliability) in large measure determines the quality of the software that uses it on that machine. A driver typically requires a significant amount of effort for development and testing, and is therefore of major importance to the hardware vendor who must supply it as well as the software developers and consumers who will use it.
The OpenGL API for 3D graphics
By 1992 it was clear that 3D graphics was poised to become a critical technology in several markets. Requests from independent software vendors led a consortium of companies to agree to support a common 3D graphics API. This new API, derived from a popular, older graphics library created by Silicon Graphics, was called OpenGL. OpenGL was to be a state-of-the-art API that could be implemented efficiently on a wide variety of computers. Its specification would be controlled by a committee (known as the Architecture Review Board, or ARB) rather than by (and for the benefit of) a single vendor. It would be easy for any hardware vendor to extend OpenGL to accommodate innovative new features, thus allowing rapid development of new applications. The original members of the ARB were Digital Equipment Corporation, International Business Machines, Intel, Microsoft, and Silicon Graphics.
At this time Microsoft was developing the first version of its new high-end operating system, Windows NT. A large part of the computer-aided design market was inaccessible to Microsoft because of technical shortcomings in Windows 3.1, and Microsoft sought to remedy those in Windows NT. One such shortcoming was the lack of good 3D graphics support, and OpenGL offered an expedient solution.
The Problem of OpenGL Driver Support
As part of a joint engineering project, Microsoft and Silicon Graphics produced an implementation of OpenGL for Windows NT. One feature of this implementation was a new (to Microsoft) device driver design, called an Installable Client-side Driver (ICD), which offered higher graphics performance and permitted any PC hardware vendor to extend the OpenGL API to support new and innovative 3D graphics functionality. This was in contrast to the usual Microsoft driver model, which was appropriate for more modest graphics performance requirements and in which Microsoft reserved exclusive control over the design of the driver and thus of the API it supported.
The 3D graphics hardware business for PCs (particularly low-cost PCs) evolved much more slowly than Microsoft and Silicon Graphics anticipated. A few PC hardware vendors (notably Digital Equipment, Intergraph, and 3Dlabs) provided capable OpenGL drivers for machines running Windows NT, but low-cost, high-volume solutions for consumers using Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 were slow to arrive. As 3D graphics hardware became more generally available in 1996, pressure to provide fast, stable implementations of OpenGL increased, and Microsoft developed a new OpenGL device driver design called the Mini Client Driver (MCD). The MCD greatly reduced the time required to produce a quality OpenGL implementation for a large class of PC graphics cards, and thus had the potential to dramatically increase the availability of OpenGL.
Microsoft Creates the Direct3D API
In 1995 and 1996 Microsoft established a new program to support games on PCs running its Windows 95 operating system. The goal was to expand the market for PCs into the area then dominated by game consoles such as those from Nintendo and Sega.
Microsoft chose not to use the OpenGL technology it already provided in Windows NT to handle 3D graphics for games. Instead, Microsoft purchased Rendermorphics, Ltd. and acquired its 3D graphics API known as RealityLab. Microsoft reworked the device driver design for RealityLab and announced the result as a new 3D graphics API called Direct3D Immediate-Mode (Direct3D).
Leveraging Windows 95 to Promote Direct3D and Freeze OpenGL
Microsoft refused to release the software needed to support OpenGL-based games on Windows 95. In fact, for a considerable time Microsoft chose not to support OpenGL on Windows 95 at all, which made it impossible for users of OpenGL-based applications on Windows NT to run them on Windows 95. Microsoft also took the unusual step of retracting its support for MCD drivers for OpenGL, even though it had already released kits to hardware developers. As a consequence, some hardware developers were forced to recall OpenGL drivers that were already in the beta-test phase. Microsoft's actions partitioned the 3D graphics market, guaranteed that OpenGL would not be widely available on high-volume PCs targeted by Windows 95, and leveraged Windows 95 to boost the overall market penetration of Direct3D.
Microsoft marketing teams began to promote the proprietary Direct3D API to games developers, hardware developers, and the trade press, while simultaneously marginalizing OpenGL. If Microsoft mentioned OpenGL at all, it was presented as a low-performance API that was suited only for certain professional computer-aided-design applications on Windows NT, while Direct3D was "mainstream'' and offered ``real-time'' performance on the much more heavily-hyped Windows 95 operating system. (This despite the widespread use of OpenGL in high-performance applications with close technical similarities to games, such as flight simulators.) Microsoft also increased its commitment of staff to Direct3D while freezing the level of staffing for OpenGL, with the result that OpenGL development slowed relative to Direct3D.
Silicon Graphics and many other users of OpenGL have businesses that depend on the ability to offer innovative and high-performance graphics technology. As it became clear that Microsoft intended to replace OpenGL with Direct3D, that Direct3D suffered from many technical shortcomings, and that (unlike OpenGL) Direct3D could not be extended by hardware vendors because it was controlled completely by Microsoft, Silicon Graphics decided to mount a demonstration at the 1996 Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics (SIGGRAPH) conference in New Orleans. The demonstration showed conclusively that OpenGL was at least as fast as Direct3D, thus refuting Microsoft's key marketing claim. Since OpenGL was already acknowledged (by Microsoft among others) as having more functionality than Direct3D, and potentially higher image quality than Direct3D, the demonstration precipitated an intense debate in the computer graphics and game development communities: Why was Microsoft promoting a new, less-capable API, and withholding already-existing device driver technology that could allow its customers to use the superior product?
Much of the public discussion took place in the comp.graphics.api.opengl and rec.games.programmer Usenet newsgroups, and is accessible from DejaNews. (If you choose to research this, be prepared for a great deal of reading! Consider searching for the thread titled "DirectX vs OpenGL'' in the comp.graphics.api.opengl newsgroup starting around August of the year 1996.)
Game Developers Ask for OpenGL on Equal Footing with Direct3D
As the technical and marketing issues were exposed, a strong pro-OpenGL reaction began. John Carmack of id Software, developer of the popular game Doom, stated publically that he would refuse to use Direct3D and use OpenGL instead. Chris Hecker published a comprehensive analysis of the two APIs in the April-May 1997 issue of Game Developer magazine, concluding that Microsoft should simply discontinue Direct3D and put its efforts into OpenGL.
It began to appear that Microsoft was using Direct3D to achieve market control and to limit innovation to areas that could not be used to challenge Microsoft, rather than to provide a technically superior product for its customers or to promote free competition between APIs. Two petitions were issued by game developers to Microsoft. The first, from 56 top game developers, called for Microsoft to release OpenGL MCD device drivers and other work that it had completed, but not released because it would allow OpenGL to compete with Direct3D. A second open letter to Microsoft on the same subject gathered 254 signatures initially and over 1400 by the time the letter was closed; the comments offered by some signatories are particularly interesting.
Microsoft's reply was to reiterate its old market positioning statement that Direct3D was for high-volume high-performance applications, and OpenGL was for high-precision computer-aided-design applications only. Although the petitioners made it clear that they wanted the two APIs on an equal footing, so that competition spurred innovation and so that no single party controlled access to the graphics hardware, Microsoft responded by increasing its investment in Direct3D and reducing its investment in OpenGL even further. To this author's knowledge, Microsoft never issued a press release to acknowledge the petitions.
About the time the original version of this article was written, Jon Peddie Associates published a cogent editorial summarizing the situation. Its assessment of Microsoft's strengths, weaknesses, and behavior is worth reading even today.
Microsoft continues to update Direct3D, and with each new revision incorporates more features from OpenGL. The overlap is not yet complete; for example, Direct3D still lacks the ability to handle curved surfaces, and it doesn't support graphics cards with geometry acceleration hardware. Nevertheless, Direct3D is much more capable than it was a year ago, and its evolution is beginning to diverge from that of OpenGL.
The most significant development over the past year is the Fahrenheit project. Silicon Graphics, dependent on Microsoft for most of the software required by its upcoming Visual PC product and concerned about technical problems with the Direct Model graphics API announced by Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, elected to negotiate a compromise. Silicon Graphics, Microsoft, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard created a joint engineering project codenamed Fahrenheit to produce three new APIs. Two of these are beyond the scope of the current discussion, but the third (Fahrenheit Low-Level, or FLL) is usually touted as the resolution of the conflict between OpenGL and Direct3D.
What is the Fahrenheit Low-Level API? At the moment no one knows what FLL will be, since no specification exists, but public statements are remarkably consistent in a few respects. From Silicon Graphics' original press release:
The Fahrenheit low-level API will evolve from Direct3D, DirectDraw and OpenGL while providing full backward compatibility with applications and hardware device drivers written for Microsoft Direct3D and functional compatibility with Silicon Graphics' OpenGL technologies.
From the August, 1998 Microsoft Developer Network DirectX chat session:
Direct3D IM is the API that is currently most compatible with what we expect Fahrenheit LL to look like.
Backward compatible with DirectX 6 [the current version] Direct3D... API and DDI [Device-Driver Interface]
In other words, the "new'' Fahrenheit Low-Level API is simply Direct3D, plus whatever additional features seem needed to match the functionality in OpenGL. With the competitive threat from OpenGL neutralized, Microsoft can proceed with business as usual.
Should Fahrenheit be regarded as a welcome sign of Microsoft's responsiveness to its customers and partners? After all, there will now be just one API, relieving a considerable burden on hardware and software developers and simplifying life for consumers. I would argue the answer is no. The new APIs are entirely Microsoft-proprietary; Microsoft is now the bottleneck for all significant innovation in the computer graphics industry. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the entire conflict was of Microsoft's creation: Without Direct3D, the industry would have arrived at this point literally years ago, with greater opportunity for competition and without the constraint on innovation that Fahrenheit represents today.
Status of OpenGL
OpenGL is still the only real alternative to complete control of 3D graphics by Microsoft. It remains viable, though Silicon Graphics no longer promotes it in any manner unacceptable to Microsoft, so it is at much greater risk. Game developers are an independent-minded lot, and several important ones are still using OpenGL. As a result, hardware vendors are working to improve their support for it. Direct3D is not yet capable of handling high-end graphics hardware and most professional applications; OpenGL dominates those niches. Finally, the Open Source community (notably the Mesa project) is scrambling to provide OpenGL support for computers of any type, whether or not they use one of Microsoft's operating systems.
3D graphics is a valuable case study for students of Microsoft. In the course of this campaign for control of a new market, Microsoft consistently:
- Acquired or adapted technology from outside organizations, rather than innovating on its own.
- Used its marketing presence to spread demonstrably false information.
- Refused to respond to the direct requests of its independent software development partners.
- Leveraged the market domination of Windows to promote its own products over superior products available from other sources.
- Used its position as supplier of essential software to curb dissent.。
- Acted to extend or protect its own control over the market, even at the expense of its business partners and of consumers in general.。
In large measure, it appears that these tactics have succeeded.
Microsoft often suggests that it provides only benefit to consumers, that the standardization it enforces is well worth the cost of ceding it complete control over the computer products those consumers use for work and entertainment. In this case, it is clear that standardization for the consumer's benefit was not Microsoft's goal; a superior standard product existed, but Microsoft systematically suppressed it in order to establish its own product and gain control of a new market in which Microsoft previously had no presence. Microsoft did this, and could do this, only because it enjoyed overwhelming dominance as an operating-system supplier. As a result, product features that might have been available to consumers up to two years ago are only now becoming common. In the meantime product development costs for both hardware and software vendors have been increased significantly by the need to deal with two competing standards. 3D graphics application software development has been inhibited by an artificially-created fragmentation of the market into incompatible "consumer'' (Windows 95) and "professional'' (Windows NT) segments.
Is this not precisely the kind of situation for which an antitrust action is the appropriate response?
Allen Akin is an independent software developer in Palo Alto, California.