Silverlight vs Flash

At the Mix 07 conference in Las Vegas, Microsoft declared all-out war on Adobe for the RIA (Rich Internet Application) online design market. First came the official launch of its Expression Studio suite (web ID: 107309), built around Expression Web for web authoring and Expression Blend for application development. Blend 1 is particularly significant, due to its introduction of XAML (eXtensible Application Markup Language) – Microsoft’s new markup language for describing the appearance of user interfaces, based on its new Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) technology. You write code to implement the interface behaviour separately in a .NET language, then compile the two together into a desktop EXE that has all the rich design features we’ve come to associate with Flash – vectors, bitmaps, audio, video, user interface components, live server-based data, interactivity and animation – plus some new capabilities such as 3D graphics, high-level formatting (including video projections) and intelligent layouts that adapt to the available screen space.

Silverlight vs Flash

Blend’s extraordinary capabilities could win Microsoft the Rich Application high ground, but what about that third letter in RIA, I for internet? To succeed against Flash in the RIA space, Microsoft needs to move beyond the desktop and into the browser. Blend 1 makes this possible by generating sandboxed browser-hosted XBAPs (XAML browser applications), in addition to conventional desktop EXEs. Simply click your new XBAP’s URL and the application automatically loads into a browser window.

Crucially, however, each XBAP remains a self-contained executable rather than an integrated element in the hosting web page. Worse, each XBAP remains fully tied to WPF and so can only be viewed under Vista (or XP with the .NET runtime). So, although XBAPs represent a useful instant deployment option for managed organisations, they violate the two main principles of the web; namely, integration with HTML and universal access. The real secrets of Flash’s success are the lightweight integration into conventional web pages and cross-platform playback. In particular, simple integrated Flash Video (FLV) playback (think YouTube) has provided the necessary infrastructure for more advanced RIAs.

Hence, at the Expression Studio launch, Microsoft attempted to spin the term RIA to mean “Rich Interactive Application”. WPF’s design power and more comprehensive event model may allow Microsoft to declare victory in the Rich and the Interactive skirmishes, but, ultimately, the war is for territory and, while it’s nice to be Rich, Reach is what matters. The standalone nature of XBAPs, plus their attachment to WPF, prevents Microsoft from moving far outside of its Windows-based desktop application fortress, whereas Flash’s truly cross-platform, cross-browser web page integration has put its player onto 99% of web users’ machines. The RIA war might be over before it’s even begun.

Go into the Silverlight

However, this isn’t a single battle but a long-term campaign, and it’s one that Microsoft simply can’t afford to lose. More significant even than the Expression Studio launch was the beta “go-live” release of Microsoft’s Silverlight technology, previously codenamed WPF/Everywhere. Silverlight employs a subset of XAML, not precompiled into an EXE or XBAP, but parsed and rendered directly within a Flash-style browser plug-in player. The player is a slimmish 1.2MB and is no longer tied to the WPF platform, with versions for IE6/7 and Firefox on the PC, Firefox and Safari on the Mac, and cross-platform Opera support promised soon. This is the second phase of Microsoft’s campaign, intended to take the fight directly to Flash inside the browser.

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