Silverlight: The Web Just Got Richer

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Update: Listen to our podcast interview with Silverlight product manager Brian Goldfarb at TalkCrunch.

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Today at Mix07 Microsoft made a number of major announcements, mostly around the recently-released Silverlight (formerly known as Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere). Microsoft presented both new products and a new vision for how services and software will interoperate in the Microsoft and Silverlight ecosystems. Microsoft is providing not only the tools and software but they are complementing it with new services from their Live division. Microsoft have also demonstrated today that their vision is for all browsers and all web users, not just users of Internet Explorer, as a common theme during the keynote presentations was inter-operability with both Firefox and Safari, and working with the Mac OSX platform.

During the keynote the new Expression Studio applications were demonstrated to great effect. These are applications targeted at designers rather than the traditional Microsoft developer crowd, and Microsoft seems to have done a good job of providing a great suite of applications that designers can use to build powerfull web applications on Silverlight. Today also marks the official gold release of Expression Studio.

When Silverlight was first announced two weeks ago, it was all about a platform that could run a subset of XAML to provide graphical and event-driven applications for the web – in short, a competitor to Flash. Today, only 14 days from the original announcement, Microsoft has officially announced that Silverlight will also contain a compact CLR, allowing developers to build desktop like applications on the web in a number of supported programming languages.

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The CLR
The biggest part of the announcement today is that Silverlight will now include a mini-CLR (Common Language Runtime) from .NET. What this means is that a subset of the full .NET platform that runs on desktops can be accessed from within the browser. As with the usual .NET runtime, with Silverlight you can code in a number of supported programming languages. At this time the languages supported are C#, Javascript (ECMA 3.0), VB, Python and Ruby. The Python and Ruby interpreters were built by Microsoft and have been released under their shared source license meaning that developers can get access to the code and are able to make contributions to it.

The most remarkable part of the CLR are its speed and its size. First of all, the full Silverlight download with CLR and everything else will weigh in at around 4MB – which with current broadband penetration is effortless. Second of all the CLR is fast, very very fast. In a demonstration today showing a game of chess routines written in .NET competed against native Javascript routines and the result was a speed difference of orders of magnitude. Developers can simple take their existing Javascript and copy it into Silverlight and have it perform multiple times faster than it does in the native browser environment. Further to that, Silverlight applications can access and manipulate the browser DOM (meaning they can reach outside and into the webpage itself) so once the Silverlight runtime is more common expect to see many developers of web applications tap into Silverlight for both a performance increase and for better visual enhancements and user experience.

Silverlight isn’t just animations in applets, far from it – it is a very serious development environment that takes desktop performance and flexibility and puts it on the web.

Multimedia
A lot of the demonstrations of Silverlight technology have dealt with multimedia – particularly online video, and Silverlight has a very strong hand in this area. Online video has traditionally been associated with Flash, and most users are familiar with the constraints that such video has such as quality levels and fullscreen viewing. Using Silverlight you can distribute multimedia as part of the application at quality levels up to 720p (high definition) and also in native full screen (not just a maximized browser screen). The demonstrations shown today were simply gorgeous, and we are finally seeing a web-based video distribution model that can compete with both desktop-based downloads as well as DVD and other offline content.

As with all Silverlight applications, video can be streamed down through IE, Firefox or Safari on both Windows and Mac OSX. If an application is doing just video and audio and doesn’t require the rest of the Silverlight CLR functionality, then the total download including the codecs required to play the stream will be around 2MB (it will be a bit bigger for Mac OSX as it is a universal binary). The install happens automatically, and doesn’t require a restart in IE which will probably result in video content sites being the first major distributors of the Silverlight 1.0 client across browsers. I expect that over time we will see a host of sites, especially those currently serving WMV of other formats into media player embeds, migrate their video serving to Silverlight.

Services
The same video sites that will be switching to Silverlight for content delivery will also want to consider one of the new web services announced by Microsoft today. The service is called Silverlight Streaming and it allows users and developers to host their Silverlight content and apps with Microsoft, taking advantage of their extensive global network of datacenters and their content delivery network. Best of all, this service is free, and while currently it is only in alpha it allows users to upload up to 4GB of content, and to stream up to 1 million minutes of online video delivery at 700kbps, around DVD quality. Starting right now, you can build a total video content site using Silverlight at no cost. The future for this service looks good as they will incorporate Silverlight Streaming with the MSN Video ad network to allow you to easily monetize your video streams and participate in a revenue sharing opportunity with Microsoft while removing your distribution costs. There will also be a premium level of content delivery where you will be able to pay for higher levels of usage – the cost for this service is as yet unknown but expect it to be very low.

Mobile
Silverlight was demonstrated today on a Windows mobile device as part of a new service that the NBL have built. The demo showed both Silverlight applications and media streaming running on a mobile phone – so Silverlight even at this stage is about more than just the desktop browser and desktop market. With windows mobile and Symbian now the two dominant mobile platforms, I can’t see any reasons why we won’t see Silverlight on Symbian as well – thus spreading the platform across the vast majority of both desktops and mobiles, something that alternative platforms have not managed to do.

What is next..
In all we should expect to see more services provided by Microsoft as part of the ecosystem. Ray Ozzie today spoke about a vision of services complimenting software – and announcing Silverlight Streaming at the same time as the new Silverlight client is an excellent example of that. Microsoft are clearly determined to position themselves as the premier provider of tools, software and services for the web.

Silverlight is excellent technology and those asking why developers and application providers won’t just stick to flash only need to look at XAML, the runtime speed and size and the flexible options with programming languages combined with very strong multimedia support to start to see the answer. Microsoft have a battle on their hands to convince the developer and designer communities that their platform is the best platform, but most of this convincing won’t be a technical showdown but rather the establishment of trust between users and Microsoft as the vendor of this new platform. That being said, Microsoft do have the largest developer community and the excitement from that community at the conference here today was very evident – so the question won’t be if there will be a killer Silverlight app but rather when, as Microsoft have given not just traditional Microsoft .NET developers but also many others a new playground in which to build very cool new apps.

My personal opinion is that Silverlight is great and that Microsoft have done very well to bring .NET to the browser (almost all browsers). What will be interesting to follow will be designer adoption of Expression Studio (as Adobe is heavily entrenched here) and then consumer adoption of Silverlight. There is no doubt that it will take time for Silverlight to hit the browsers and it is up against Flash which is deeply entrenched – but the barrier to delivering a new plugin to browsers is nowhere near as high as most users will trust Microsoft as the publisher of the plugin and will install it. I also expect that Silverlight will get distribution through Windows Update and Microsoft’s own applications (hotmail?).

To find out more about Silverlight, and to download toolkits and samples and particpiate in discussions check out the new Silverlight website at www.silverlight.net. Silverlight 1.0 will go gold sometime this summer.

Nik Cubrilovic has been a contributor to Techcrunch since early 2006. He writes a blog at www.nik.com.au and he is the CEO of Omnidrive

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