MetaCreations' Strange Move

SAN FRANCISCO (01/24/2000) - Many Mac users had to be scratching their heads after MetaCreations Corp.'s December 14, 1999, announcement that the company plans to sell off graphics applications that don't fit with its new focus on 3-D visualization technologies for Web-based retailers.

At press time MetaCreations wouldn't say which programs would be sold off, but given that at least 100 of the company's 250 employees will receive pink slips, it's clear that MetaCreations plans to shed a considerable chunk of its product line. MetaCreations' products include such popular graphics packages as Painter, Bryce, Poser, Canoma, and Kai's Power Tools (KPT) Adobe Photoshop plug-ins; the company recently shipped Carrara, a 3-D modeling, rendering, and animation program that combines the features of Ray Dream Designer and Specular Infini-D.

In a prepared statement, MetaCreations said that its board chose the new strategy after determining that its e-commerce initiatives had more growth potential than its graphics applications. Those initiatives are centered on MetaStream, a streaming 3-D graphics format that the company developed in cooperation with Intel Corp. A PC version of the MetaStream plug-in has been available since May 1998; the company finally shipped a Macintosh version last August. MetaCreations offers its MetaStream services through MetaStream.com, a division that is 20 percent owned by Computer Associates.

The move is puzzling for several reasons. MetaCreations had appeared to be getting its financial act together, following in the footsteps of Macromedia by shedding nonessential products and focusing on the professional graphics market. During the fall 1999 Seybold desktop-publishing conference, MetaCreations representatives showed a road map that called for upgrades to most of the company's key programs through much of 2000.

Some of the company's most popular products, such as Painter and the KPT Photoshop plug-ins, appear to have limited application as e-commerce visualization tools. Yet it's hard to believe that Mark Zimmer, who has replaced Gary Lauer as MetaCreations CEO, would cut loose Painter, a program that he authored -- and that recently saw its most significant upgrade in years. Just a week before the announcement, MetaCreations representatives were offering demonstrations of KPT 6, the first of what was supposed to be several collections of all-new Photoshop plug-ins.

MetaCreations may also find itself in a legal quagmire if it tries to sell Bryce, a popular program for generating realistic 3-D landscapes. Eric Wegner, who developed the technology behind Bryce, claims that he retains ownership of the underlying software-essentially everything but the user interface. In a message to Bryce users, Wegner said that he has the source code to Bryce 2 and will publish his own version if MetaCreations abandons the program.

The 3-D streaming technology in MetaStream is based on software developed by Real Time Geometry, a company that MetaTools acquired in 1996 shortly before the latter's merger with Fractal Design. The MetaStream technology uses an efficient, low-bandwidth approach to rendering 3-D graphics, making it an ideal application for the Web. However, the MetaStream format faces plenty of competition, including Web3D, a forthcoming Web standard based on the current Virtual Reality Modeling Language.

In a late-December letter to MetaCreations customers, Zimmer promised that the company would find a "complementary new home" -- meaning another graphics-software developer -- for its "nonstrategic" graphics, modeling, and paint programs, but he didn't specify which programs those might be.

Until a buyer is found for the programs, MetaCreations says it will continue to offer technical support and enhance the products. Adobe Systems has already said that it is not interested in taking on any of the programs. Other likely candidates are Macromedia, Quark, Corel, and Play; the latter company in particular would seem to be a good match for Bryce and Poser.

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