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Silverlight 2.0: killer features, no Flash killer

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Web bling tone Microsoft's Silverlight 2.0, released this month for Windows and Mac, is a tipping point. This is the version that gives developers the features they have long been waiting for, including a cross-platform implementation of Microsoft's .NET Framework.

Microsoft will use its massive Professional Developers' Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles, California, this week to introduce a small army of developers who'd been using beta code to the finished product. Before we look at what's inside Silverlight 2.0, and its importance, it's worth seeing how far Microsoft's browser-based media player has come in such a short time and what Microsoft is aiming for.

Silverlight's progress has been fast. It was announced almost as an afterthought by former platforms group vice president Jim Allchin at Microsoft's last PDC, in September 2005. "We're introducing something called WPF/E, the Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere. This is very early work," he said.

Six months later, at the first ReMIX conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, Microsoft revealed that WPF/E would also include the .NET runtime. Silverlight 1.0, the JavaScript release, appeared in September 2007 and a year later we have the full thing. It seems that Silverlight has enjoyed priority treatment by Microsoft.

The reason is likely to do with the rise of Adobe Systems' Flash Player and the trend towards cloud computing. Microsoft did not worry much about Flash when it was a decorative thing with a "skip the intro" button, but when it started running applications, that was different. The story begins around 2000, when a company called WebVertising Inc created a new version of an online booking system called iHotelier, using Macromedia Flash 5.

Its innovation was the user did not need to click between pages to make a booking: everything happened on one screen, just like a desktop application. Jim Whitney, WebVertising chief technology officer (CTO) at the time, told me: "I was building the project, and searching on questions and finding no answers, and I started to think, maybe no one is really doing this. I was forced to just work it out."

A phrase is born

Whitney's efforts chimed exactly with the direction the then Macromedia was planning for Flash MX, and his application became a showpiece for what that company's CTO Jeremy Allaire started calling "rich internet applications" or RIAs.

The world took little notice at first, but now it is 2008, developers are trying to figure out how to make browser-based applications more compelling and useful, and Flash turns out to be an excellent fit, iPhone users excepted. Silverlight is Microsoft's answer. Now .NET developers can code RIAs without leaving the comfort of C# or Visual Basic.

Let us be clear though: although both Flash and Silverlight address the same territory, in some ways they are worlds apart. I write this shortly after reviewing Adobe's Creative Suite 4, which targets the new Flash Player 10. From a designer's perspective, Adobe's tools are far ahead of Microsoft's Expression Blend, the design tool for Silverlight - and they run on the Mac, too.

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