Microsoft gets serious

After months of rumours, Microsoft has finally taken the wraps off its new product, Silverlight. Is it actually a product? Not really, it’s a runtime system for a cut-down version of the .NET Framework and just-in-time compilers. But that’s by no means the whole story, and the more I look, the more I see a far bigger plan starting to emerge.

Microsoft gets serious

First, you need to be aware that this runtime is tiny, designed to be hosted inside a web browser as a plug-in – think Flash and you’ll be on the right track. In fact, let’s not mince words, let’s call it “Microsoft’s Potential Flash Killer”. It’s heavily graphics-orientated and can do astonishing things to video streams, it’s lightweight and will be consistent across all platforms, running on both Windows and Macintosh OS X platforms today. I’d guess it will soon come to Linux, via the Novell relationship, and it will arrive on Windows smartphones (plus other embedded Windows platforms), almost certainly following for Symbian phones soon after.

As Microsoft puts it, “Silverlight is a cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivering the next generation of Microsoft .NET-based media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web”. The emphasis is on rich and interactive apps, delivered over the web, and based on the .NET Framework and runtime in machine-, OS- and browser-independent fashion. Making the installation simple will be crucial for success – the core downloadable plug-in is only a few megabytes in size, and Microsoft knows it has to do better over version control than the mess it made of the full .NET Framework.

The resulting apps will offer a new level of interactivity compared to the current HTML- and DHTML-based applications, and to achieve this Silverlight comes with a full arsenal of powerful graphic capabilities, both vector and bitmap, media, text, animation and video. It can already handle streaming HD video to the client, and various companies have already demonstrated rich video-on-demand applications that feature floating transparent information panels, multiple video streams and video-in-video. I’m assured the apps demonstrated this at May’s Microsoft’s Mix 07 conference in Las Vegas were the real thing, and not just smoke-and-mirrors mockups. Microsoft made an unusual move by releasing two versions of Silverlight: the 1.0 beta and a 1.1 alpha aimed at developers, which adds support for the next layer of components. Be in no doubt that this is a product in rapid development and we won’t have to wait months for a first release to come to market.

So, how is this different to Flash? Well, it’s different in many ways. First, you can use any of the languages that are currently supported under .NET, so you can write Silverlight apps in Visual Basic or C#, or any of a score of more available languages, including Ruby. Second, I don’t think anyone expected Microsoft to be quite so ferocious in its cross-platform push: Mac OS X support is most welcome. Microsoft’s support for OS X has been poor over the last few years, from the dropping of Internet Explorer, Media Player, Encarta and Outlook to the indignity of talking its way out of the disaster caused by its removal of the VBA macro engine from its forthcoming Office 2008 release. This belated vote of confidence in Apple is welcome, although admittedly it’s also necessary if any future cross-platform adventures with Silverlight are to have any credibility in the face of competition from Flash, Apollo and the like.

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