WebGL 3D graphics is becoming a critical requirement for anything impressive on the web, but now Google seem to be pushing it into situations where it can do real work.
At the end of last year (2011) Google added a 2D graphing feature to Google search. You may not have realized it, but if you type in a function such as sin(x) into the Google search box you will discover that as well as links you also get an interactive 2D graph of the function. The implementation used SVG graphics to create an infinite scrolling and zooming facility that would be the envy of most specialist graphing packages.
Google has now added 3D plotting to the mix, which you can see if you type in a function like sin(x,y). This too is interactive and supports the same infinite scroll and zoom - although this isn't quite as simple to use because of the nature of manipulating a 3D object. It also rotates the chart slowly so that you can see what it looks like from all sides. If this isn't good enough you can click and drag to rotate it to a view that you like.
If you give it a try then you have to admit that for a free 3D graphing tool it is very good.
The new facility is based on WebGL, the standards way of drawing 3D graphics in a browser. This is supported by Chrome, Firefox and Opera but most notably not by any release of IE - not even IE 10. This isn't just a "we can't keep up" problem. Microsoft has no intention of supporting WebGL - ever!
Microsoft has refused to support WebGL, presumably because it prefers its own DirectX 3D graphics engine. There have been previous examples of 3D graphics demos and games that IE has been unable to work with, but this is possibly the first mainstream feature - it is something supported on Google search - which IE cannot display. If you do try it with IE then what you will see is a very simple message:
3D charts require a web browser and system that support WebGL.
If you click on the link then you will see another message that your browser doesn't support WebGL and links to Chrome and Firefox downloads. The Google Inside Search blog simply states:
This feature is enabled by a technology called WebGL, which we’re using for the first time in Google Search. WebGL is a new web technology that brings hardware-accelerated 3D graphics to the browser without the need to install additional software. This technology is currently supported on modern web browsers such as Chrome and Firefox.
While 3D charts probably aren't going to be a deal breaker when it comes to using IE for all but the most avid math lover (link needs WebGL), it is the first time an IE user will have the inadequacy of their browser pointed out by a major web utility like Google search.
Put simply IE now no longer delivers everything Google search offers.
How long can Microsoft keep its head in the sand and claim that IE9 or IE10 are standards-based HTML5 browsers when missing out such a huge feature?
Either Microsoft has to wake up and face reality or we have to wake up and switch to Firefox or Chrome.