Microsoft finally unveiled its new product, Silverlight. But is it actually a product? Not really. It is more aptly described as a runtime system for a cut-down version of the .NET Framework and just-in-time (JIT) compilers. The runtime is tiny, designed to be a plugin to a web browser much like Flash is also available as a plugin. Microsoft see this technology as a potential “Flash killer”, although it is unlikely to achieve such a status, at least in the short to medium term. They have stiff competition from Adobe with the AIR/Flash/Flex combination which is engrained into the designer/developer community.
From the Silverlight website, it is clear that the project is heavily graphics-orientated and can do interesting things with video streams. Somewhat more interesting is that Microsoft have said that it will be consistent across multiple platforms, running on both Windows and Macintosh operating systems. It may even progress to Linux through the partnership with Novell, not to mention support for Windows smartphones and other Windows embedded devices. This is intriguing, yet promising for a company that historically has shunned competing technologies.
Microsoft described Silverlight as “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 interactive applications delivered over the web. The result being applications which offer a new level of user interactivity to rival that of the desktop and firmly banish HTML-based website to the bin. Sounds familiar? Flash?
So how is it different from AIR/Flash/Flex? Essentially, you can use any of the languages supported under the .NET framework, which means that Silverlight applications can be written in C# or Visual Basic, as well as other languages such as Ruby and Python. Like the AIR/Flash/Flex combination, Silverlight has its own set of development and debug tools in Visual Studio and a complete Expression suite for visual designers.
The Killer Application?
Silverlight on its own will not be the killer application so-to-speak. It is the services behind Silverlight, the data streaming services, that will be a key differentiator. Combining Silverlight with Microsoft’s new initiative, quietly referred to as “Live 2.0”, will provide video storage and streaming capabilities worthy of a Google-styled offering. These streaming services will clearly carry some form of advertising. You don’t have to use the Microsoft service, but the intention is clear; high-bandwidth, high-availability streaming of video data requires huge investment and Microsoft is making that investment to take its own slice of a huge, fledgling market.
Video streaming isn’t the only part of the service. Microsoft plans to develop facilities such as server-side data and credit card processing. This opens up possibilites for an application developed in Silverlight to be hosted, managed and distributed by Microsoft or another partner. I hear alarm bells … hosted, managed and distributed all by Microsoft! This is clearly putting all your eggs in one basket, but prudence is key when choosing which services to sign up to.
The Future Is Online.
With Silverlight, Microsoft has shifted its emphasis and signalled a firm intention that the future is online. It will be offering end-to-end solutions that allow the design and development of systems, and the management and distribution of those systems based around web services running not only locally but out in the etha of the Internet. Utimately we will be able to choose when, where and how we access applications and information. Whether Microsoft’s vision can be successful is dependent on whether this behemoth of a company can metamorphose from a conservative institution into a dynamic one. They have the money, the intellect and the technology, they now need the spirit of a precocious of a teenager.