Minimum system requirements... for the web

October 14, 2011 in Internet,Technology

I remember when the concept of "minimum system requirements" became important. It was during the late 90's, as 3dfx and Nvidia battled to own the nascent market for hardware-accelerated graphics. For the first time, you had software which simply wouldn't run on a computer unless it met certain criteria, namely the ability to perform certain types of linear algebra (though that wasn't part of the marketing, for some reason).

Over the next near-decade, the GPU would become a near-standard piece of equipment, 3dfx would disappear (bought, in fact, by Nvidia), and ATI (now AMD) and later Intel would arrive as new competitors. But the concept of "minimum system requirements" quietly disappeared. The binary outcome (will or won't your system run this software?) was replaced with a spectrum (how well will your system run this software?) as manufacturers found ways to gracefully degrade their products. It's been a while since I came across a product that simply wouldn't run, in one form or another, on a modern computer.

And that's why I was so surprised to discover this evening that "minimum system requirements" are not only back, but they're on the web! I'm not talking about some shadowy site that only a handful of people will stumble upon. I'm talking about one of the most widely-visited properties in the world: Google Maps.

Google announced that its more daring customers may enable an experimental WebGL mode in Google Maps, which allows smooth vector rendering and other visual niceties like 3D buildings with shadows that actually track the local sun. It also appears that Street View fully integrates the 3D data collected along with the imagery, to enhance the illusion of motion.

But this all comes with a catch -- unless your system is packing a modern browser AND a recent GPU, the experimental renderer will refuse to load. I have no problem with the browser requirement. Browsers are free; it astounds me that someone wouldn't run the latest available version of their preferred browser. But the GPU requirement bugs me. First of all, this technology is currently available on mobile phones; let's not pretend it requires significant hardware capabilities. Secondly... it runs on mobile phones. I constantly wonder at the fact that my iPhone is orders of magnitude more powerful than my first computer, but I've never considered for one second that it was more capable than my current machine.

I'm going to choose to believe that the "minimum system requirements" is an artificial gate akin to Google's infamous "beta" tags: a simple way to disclaim any bugs or errors without having to provide full support. What better way to test an experimental rendering engine than having your testers self-select based on a preference for high-end graphics work? I really can't argue with the logic.

In the meantime, I'll sit here and dream about exploring WebGL maps on my MBA. While I wait, maybe I'll play around with the Google Earth browser plugin. It's really kind of incredible: I can fly over a faithfully rendered 3D globe, filled with textured buildings and trees, without ever leaving my browser*, but if I want to see building shadows that update in realtime, I need to buy a new GPU. Something doesn't add up.

*I know, I know, it's a plugin. It doesn't count.

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