Silverlight 2.0: killer features, no Flash killer
Open, with limitations
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.
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.
If MS had managed to coordinate themselves well enough and get the tech up to scratch so they could PhotoSynth as a Silverlight application, I think that would have done a better job of convincing people that Silverlight was actually a really powerful and worthwhile new technology.
Without a killer ap like that that will really wow end users, all that will happen is people get put off by the Microsoft smell. WPF, LINQ and so on may be great tools for developers, but important as that is, a development environment that turns on a few developers isn't enough.
I might place a bit of a wager on Silverlight
I think dismissing Silverlight is a bit premature.
As a .NET developer, within 5 minutes of taking my first steps in looking at Silverlight I could see where it is going.
Dismissing .NET as "shite" is coming from a position of ignorance. Microsoft's biggest problem is actually in playing a different sort of catch-up in a market that is not really their traditional line of business. But once they begin to, look out... because I think that to evolve Silverlight from where it is now (infancy really) to delivering very very serious web-served business apps in a browser is going to be relatively easy for them to do. I'm kind of astonished that .NET is sometimes dismissed off-hand, because it has developed to a very powerful stage, and if there is one game in which I WOULDN'T want to be taking on MS it is that one.
Competitors are in a sense coming from opposite ends of the planet. Flash has the established market position, and has been evolving into a business technology. Microsoft already has that underlying technology. Serious technology. Personally, if I was say Macromedia I as sure as hell wouldn't be smugly dismissive.
As for a difficulty in understanding the emerging MS technologies, isn't that true of anything? VS 2008 and .NET 3.5 has coincided with an explosion of new technologies... Windows Presentation Foundation, Windows Communication Foundation, LINQ, Silverlight, so on. They have some real learning curves associated, but that's proportionate to what's under the hood.
Anyway, back to work... if .NET is shite I have developed some strange fetishes, because Visual Studio and the .NET platform seriously turns me on. At the end of the day we each understand the technologies that we live with. How well MS can market Silverlight.. who knows? But if it begins to gain acceptance... it could be competitors playing their own kind of catch up.
Funny how people accept one monoploy and not another.....ho hum.....